Google, Optum, Microsoft team up on $13M challenge to prevent next pandemic

A woman is wearing a face mask on the sidewalk
The Trinity Challenge will offer about $13 million in funding to recognize and reward insights and innovations across areas including economics, behavioral sciences and epidemiology. (Getty/filadendron)

Google, Optum and Microsoft are teaming up with leading universities and foundations on a new initiative that aims to use data and analytics to learn from the global response to COVID-19.

The goal is to better prepare the world for the next pandemic.

"There is a necessity for cross-sector collaboration in response to this pandemic and preparing for the next one. And, we know there will be another one, the question is only when," said Sally Davies, master of Trinity College at the University of Cambridge and former chief medical officer of England, during the HTLH 2020 virtual conference Monday.

"We have choices to make—do we respond to the here and now, and or do we work to prepare for the long term?" Davies said. "We have a responsibility to turn this health emergency into an opportunity."

The Trinity Challenge, initially announced in September, will offer about $13 million in funding to recognize and reward insights and innovations across areas including economics, behavioral sciences and epidemiology. Founding members of the challenge span the public, private and social sectors including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Facebook, Tencent, GlaxoSmithKline, Cambridge University, Imperial College London and Northeastern University.

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The Trinity Challenge seeks new and practical ideas that could protect health and economic systems from the threat of global health emergencies across three areas: identification, response and recovery. 

Solutions for identification could include building early-warning systems and developing new technologies to identify threatening pathogens before they cause great harm, Davies said. Innovations for recovery could help address the disproportionate health and economic impacts of pandemics, particularly on vulnerable groups, she said.

The challenge began accepting applications for proposals Oct. 12. The submission period will close in January.

Optum has "deep, broad, well-researched data sources" to lend to this effort as well large teams of clinicians and data scientists, according to Dan Schumacher, president and chief operating officer for Optum, who spoke during the HLTH conference Monday.

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"We're hoping that this will yield some solutions in important areas such as an integrated data network, particularly through the supply chain, so we can understand what resources we have available, where and when," he said.

Other potential solutions that could result from the Trinity Challenge include a surveillance platform to provide predictive analytics as well as a playbook for how to address future pandemics, Schumacher said.

Google's participation in the Trinity Challenge builds on its work to leverage its tech muscle to develop digital tools that help address the COVID-19 pandemic, said David Feinberg, M.D., vice president of Google Health, during the virtual panel.

Google is working with Apple to roll out digital contact tracing technology on smartphones that can be used by public health agencies to track COVID-19.

The tech giant also has focused its COVID-19 response on providing communities with technology to help fight the virus outside of the hospital, such as hyperlocal analytics and drive-thru testing resources.

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The company also has optimized its Google Search to present local COVID-19 announcements and curates authoritative information from reputable sources, Feinberg said.

Tech giants can play a large role in responding to global health issues, including pandemics, by working with the public sector, Feinberg said.

"Google is a partnership company. We’re not fighting other tech companies in this space of health. The real competition to me is COVID-19—it's depression, it's obesity, it's cancer; that is who we are fighting," he said.