When thousands in Europe caught Covid-19 in March, France began collecting information on everything from early symptoms and drug sales to lab tests. In a country noted for its strict approach to data protection, these efforts have gained the attention of regulators. On Friday, France’s top court raised these concerns when it cited the privacy watchdog’s caution on Microsoft Corp., which is hosting the hub project, to hand over details on what data is migrating to the U.S. and whether it can assure confidentiality. “The virus forced us to accelerate things,” Stephanie Combes, the hub’s director, said in an interview. “This crisis shows us why we were created: to have actionable data. But we have to go much further. We need to rethink how we collect health data.”
France’s data project project began in March 2019 after a Fields medal-winning mathematician warned that the country needed to up its AI game. The hub, created in December, inherited 20 years of pharmacy and hospital data, and in April an emergency law was signed for gathering virus data. The hub will be the central point for data from the country’s clinical trials, prescriptions and disabilities research. For a fee, academics, private companies, and health authorities will be able to analyze the data. EY’s health expert Loic Chabanier said France’s data value could be “potentially colossal” — from benefits for the health-care system to royalties on molecules and licenses. Governments from France and Finland to Germany and Italy have been collecting health data for decades, but the pandemic focused attention on the need to use the data to make medical and economic decisions in weeks rather then years.
“All this is a competitive advantage, eventually,” Jukka Lahesmaa, a senior adviser to Finland’s Ministry of Health and Social Affairs, said in an interview. “It will change the economy of health data in Europe. The EU data space will bring clarity and standards.” Now the hub is being criticized. Privacy lawyers and activists too much data was taken concerning COVID-19 data from hospitals, pharmacies, labs and care-house records. The privacy watchdog CNIL said it was worried about potential data transfers to the U.S. after the hub picked Microsoft to host the data. “We’ve made sure it can be reversible, to be able to change tomorrow, if needed,” Combes said, alluding to the Microsoft contract following queries from France’s privacy watchdog.
In the U.K., which is ahead in its health data digitization, the NHS started issuing licenses about two years ago — without sufficient privacy safeguards, critics say. Transfers of U.K. health data are also in the balance of trade talks with the U.S. Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Palantir Technologies Inc. have signed contracts with the NHS to process virus-related data, and attracted the attention of privacy activists. Similar projects are emerging elsewhere in Europe. Findata has been up and running in Finland since April, allowing permits and licences to be bought to use the data — something pharmaceutical company Oriola, telemedicine firms Terveystalo and Mehilainen and Helsinki University are doing. In Germany — the other country with potentially huge data sets — the Medical Informatics Initiatives is expected to be operational before mid-2021.
Read more: Palantir in Talks With Germany, France for Virus-Fighting Tool
Meanwhile, France is just getting started, Combes says. “The (hub) is just in its beginning stages,” she said. “We’ve identified missing data links through this crisis, data collection that needs to be upgraded.”
— With assistance by Natalia Drozdia