Where’s the Data? The Missing Link in the U.S. Response to Covid-19

Photograph Source: Oregon National Guard – CC BY 2.0

I’ve been tuning in regularly to the Covid Grand Rounds from the University of California San Francisco Department of Medicine – a public program aired every couple of weeks on YouTube. I’ve come to trust the moderator and the guests—experts all, from different corners of the medical world.

Thus, when this week’s guest–a leading researcher in molecular medicine had sharp words for the Biden administration’s failure to collect critical data on Covid cases, I paid attention.

Appearing in a January 13 presentation, Eric Topol, editor-in-chief of Medscape and holder of an endowed chair at Scripps Research, said,

We have pathetic data systems…For example, right now we want to know if these Omicron boosters– how well they’re working to prevent hospitalization and deaths. And when do they wane? Those people who are getting hospitalized who had a third shot—what’s going on there?

We were promised by the CDC in May that they would track every breakthrough hospitalization and death.  Never happened. And so we don’t have critical data. We have 150,000 plus people in the hospital, and I have BEGGED at the HHS level that we have granular data on each of those people—their vaccination status, which vaccine, when they got it, their age, their co-existing conditions, and all the basal stuff, and they say, ‘We’re going to look into it.’ Even though it can be mandated by HHS authority.

So we have just a dreadful situation here where we don’t have real-time captured data.  The only data that gets posted on the CDC is a month old and it’s de minimis about things like hospitalizations or deaths. And this is unacceptable. If you’re going to go in a pandemic and try to deliver guidance, you have to have data. That’s how you develop trust.

Not only does the U.S. not have a reliable system for collecting this data but, he said “there’s no seeming will to get one. And that is distressing, and has to change.”

He prefaced his remarks by saying “we of course support the current administration and the mantra of sticking to the science, but later said,

we have a secretary of HHS [Health and Human Services] — he hasn’t shown up for the pandemic…

We have a serious problem. There’s been a lot of infighting between the agencies. And the HHS secretary should be bringing that together. So we have a serious problem. We have a no-show HHS secretary. We have an HHS that could mandate this data capture but they’re afraid, in my view, of political backlash, that’s why they’re not doing it…

So we have to rely on other countries and fortunately we have amazing data that comes out of places like the UK and Israel, Denmark, South Africa, that has been terrific for us, but we have a different population here, we’re much less vaccinated, much less boosted, we have lots of coexisting conditions that are not as prevalent in these other countries, yet we don’t have data.

I don’t think that the administration has delivered on sticking to the science, because part of the science is having the data.

Topol was appearing on UCSF’s Covid-19 Grand Rounds, usually held biweekly and presented live and recorded on Youtube. For the January 13 session, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lCAvFHd3B38. The section in which he makes these remarks begins at about 48 minutes into the program. For information on future sessions, see https://medicine.ucsf.edu/dom_grand_rounds.