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Enlisting big data to accelerate the COVID-19 fight

  • June 11, 2020
UAB’s CCTS joins a nationwide collaboration creating a secure, central database of electronic health records from coronavirus patients.

Editor's Note: The information published in this story is accurate at the time of publication. Always refer to for UAB's current guidelines and recommendations relating to COVID-19.

CCTUjoomaUAB’s CCTS joins a nationwide collaboration creating a secure, central database of electronic health records from coronavirus patients.The Center for Clinical and Translational Science at the University of Alabama at Birmingham has joined a nationwide collaboration of clinicians, informaticians and other biomedical researchers aimed at turning data from hundreds of thousands of medical records of coronavirus patients into effective treatments and predictive analytical tools that could help lessen or end the global pandemic.

Through the National COVID Cohort Collaborative, or NC3, about 60 clinical institutions affiliated with the National Institutes of Health-supported Clinical and Translational Science Awards Program are invited to partner with United States Department of Health and Human Services agencies and clinical organizations. Together collaborative members will support the analysis of electronic health records on a new, secure database. The CCTS hub at UAB played a key role in the development of the collaboration and was one of four institutions chosen to present the potential of N3C to NIH Director Francis Collins.

“The CCTS often provides the platform for opportunities like this to take hold, but it is the willingness of so many to contribute the time and effort needed to make a project successful and worthwhile,” said CCTS Director Robert P. Kimberly, M.D. “This effort is another great reminder of the strength of this community.”  

Kimberly says James Cimino, M.D., Matt Wyatt, MSHI, Amye Miles and the UAB Informatics Institute played an integral part of the process, making UAB’s patient data accessible through the collaboration.

The National COVID Cohort Collaborative is supported as part of a $25 million NIH award to the National Center for Data to Health, which is coordinating the collaborative’s efforts and is based at the Oregon Health and Science University’s Oregon Clinical and Translational Research Institute. NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, also known as NCATS, is providing overall stewardship of the Collaborative.

“There is no centralized health care data in the United States,” said Melissa Haendel, Ph.D., the collaborative’s lead investigator and an associate professor of medical informatics and clinical epidemiology in the OHSU School of Medicine. “The coronavirus pandemic has spurred us to build, for the first time, a process for collecting and harmonizing electronic health records from many different institutions, storing it in one secure location, and making it available in a collaborative platform for use by diverse experts.”

The secure, cloud-based database is certified through the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program, or FedRAMP, which provides standardized assessment, authorization and continuous monitoring for cloud products and services. The National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences is providing the database, which contains records from patients who have undergone coronavirus testing or are suspected to be infected. 

CCTUjoomla2Robert P. Kimberly, M.D.Individuals granted access to the database will be able to run algorithms on this first-of-its-kind patient data set without seeing actual patient records. A safe derivative of the patient data called synthetic data will also be available.

The database will enable new machine learning and rigorous modern statistical analyses to answer key questions such as predicting patient responses to antiviral or anti-inflammatory therapies, identifying potential new drugs and treatments, and finding other indicators such as biomarkers that can inform clinical decision-making.

“This effort demonstrates how the existing resources of the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences and Clinical and Translational Science Awards Program hubs can be leveraged to quickly address public health emergencies,” said Michael G. Kurilla, M.D., Ph.D., Division of Clinical Innovation director at NCATS. “The National COVID Cohort Collaborative represents a shared vision to make data more meaningful, open and accessible to the research community to study COVID-19 and help identify urgently needed treatments.”

The first sampling of electronic health records began to be transferred to the database on May 12, and more will be uploaded as additional partners join the effort. The 15 institutions that have agreed to contribute data thus far are Oregon Health and Science University, Johns Hopkins University, University of North Carolina, Rockefeller, Washington University, University of Kentucky, Medical University of South Carolina, Stony Brook University, University of Alabama at Birmingham, Tufts University, University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Massachusetts, Wake Forest University Health Sciences, Maine Medical Center Research Institute, and Pennsylvania State University.

While the collaborative’s database is not intended to be a repository of all coronavirus patients’ records, organizers want to make its data fully reflective of America’s diverse residents and have diverse clinicians and health care researchers from across the United States analyze the data. More partners are needed to make this happen. Those interested in contributing data or participating in this effort should send an email to