Clinicians and researchers around the world are racing to collect data in order to better understand COVID-19 — including risk factors for severe cases, treatment strategies and the viability of various vaccines. But a vital element missing has been a wide-scale database for sharing information as research progresses.

Researchers at the USC Mark and Mary Stevens Neuroimaging and Informatics Institute (INI), part of the Keck School of Medicine of USC, are hard at work on a solution. The COVID-19 Data Archive, or COVID-ARC, will aggregate data from studies around the world, allowing researchers to access the findings of international colleagues and forge collaborations to advance progress against the disease. The effort is funded by a one-year, $252,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

“We saw an urgent need for strategic data management arise as soon as COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic,” said Dominique Duncan, PhD, assistant professor of neurology at the Keck School and principal investigator for COVID-ARC.

Duncan and her team will build on the institute’s decades of experience developing and maintaining large-scale data repositories for neurological diseases, including the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative, the Global Alzheimer’s Association Interactive Network, the Epilepsy Bioinformatics Study for Antiepileptogenic Therapy, the Parkinson’s Progression Markers Initiative and the Data Archive for the BRAIN Initiative.

“The INI rose to the challenge presented by COVID-19 and we’re now leveraging our expertise in data archiving to support researchers around the world,” said Arthur W. Toga, PhD, Provost Professor of Ophthalmology, Neurology, Psychiatry and the Behavioral Sciences, Radiology and Engineering, the Ghada Irani Chair in Neuroscience at the Keck School and director of the INI.

COVID-ARC was funded through the NSF’s Rapid Response Research (RAPID) funding mechanism, which it enacted this spring to quickly award funding for COVID-related studies.

“They use this RAPID funding mechanism for large-scale disasters or any kind of situation that creates an urgent need for immediate research,” Duncan said.

The archive will store a range of data types, including the results of clinical evaluations, vital signs, demographic and geolocation information, imaging results and more. It will also provide researchers with visualization, quality control and data analysis tools to better manage and understand their findings.

Unlike some existing databases which limit researcher access, COVID-ARC will be freely accessible to the public. In some cases, researchers may need to request access to restricted datasets and agree to credit data collectors once findings are published.

Ultimately, Duncan said the framework used for COVID-ARC can help the research community respond more quickly to future emergencies involving infectious diseases.

“Our hope is that this project can also prepare us for the next pandemic,” she said. “We’ll have the infrastructure in place to enable researchers to aggregate data and perform analysis right at the onset.”

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— Zara Greenbaum