Data difficulties

Nature
Volume 593 Issue 7857, 6 May 2021
https://www.nature.com/nature/volumes/593/issues/7857

 

Data difficulties
And India has other problems. One is that it’s not easy for scientists to access data for COVID-19 research. That, in turn, prevents them from providing accurate predictions and evidence-based advice to the government. Even in the absence of such data, researchers warned the government last September to be cautious about relaxing COVID-19 restrictions (Lancet 396, 867; 2020). And as late as the start of April, they warned that a second wave could see 100,000 COVID-19 cases a day by the end of the month.

On 29 April, more than 700 scientists wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, asking for better access to data such as COVID-19 test results and clinical outcomes of patients in hospitals (see go.nature.com/3vc1svt), as well as a large-scale genome-surveillance programme to identify new variants (see go.nature.com/3vd7fak). The following day, Krishnaswamy Vijayraghavan, the government’s principal scientific adviser, acknowledged these concerns and clarified the ways in which researchers outside the government can access these data. This move has been welcomed by the letter’s signatories, but they have told Nature that some aspects of data access remain unclear.
A letter of protest shouldn’t have been necessary in the first place. By identifying themselves, the signatories took a risk: in the past, the Modi government has not reacted well to researchers organizing to question its policies. Two years ago, a letter from more than 100 economists and statisticians urging an end to political interference in official statistics was not well received by officials. The letter was written after the resignations of senior officials from India’s National Statistical Commission over what they saw as interference in the timing of the release of government data.

It’s never good when research communities have a difficult relationship with their national governments. But this can be fatal in the middle of a pandemic — when decisions need to be swift and evidence-based. By sidelining their scientists, the governments of Brazil and India have missed out on a crucial opportunity to reduce the loss of life.

During a pandemic, we all need our governments to succeed. However, it’s difficult to make good decisions quickly, more so with incomplete information — which is why health data need to be both accurate and accessible to researchers and clinicians. Denying or obscuring such access risks prolonging the pandemic.