Everything we know about HHS Protect, a secretive government project with Peter Thiel’s Palantir that helps brief Trump’s coronavirus task force

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  • A secretive project at the US Department of Health and Human Services is working with technology companies to collect and analyze data related to the novel coronavirus. 
  • The effort, dubbed HHS Protect, tracks information from around the country about coronavirus case numbers, hospital capacity, and even supply-chain issues. 
  • HHS uses Palantir Technologies, a data firm cofounded by Peter Thiel, to distill that information for the White House coronavirus task force.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

A secretive project at the US Department of Health and Human Services is working with technology companies to collect and analyze data related to the novel coronavirus. 

The effort, dubbed HHS Protect, includes about 2.5 billion pieces of data from healthcare providers, government officials, and labs around the country about coronavirus case numbers, hospital capacity, and even supply-chain issues. 

The goal is to learn about the progression of outbreaks and, with the help of the data-analysis firm Palantir Technologies, distill that information for the White House coronavirus task force and other officials, a spokesperson for HHS told Business Insider in a statement.

But hospitals lack guidance on how to format their reports and, sometimes, the technological infrastructure to collect all the data HHS is asking for, according to healthcare administrators and consultants interviewed by Business Insider.

As a result, officials have been working to wrestle various forms of coronavirus data into a singular platform, according to HHS. That’s where Plantir comes in, as it was contracted to help develop the project, The Daily Beast reported.

Palantir did not respond to a request for comment on the project.

The federal government isn’t collecting personal information via HHS Protect, but it plans to. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will share patient data with the HHS platform, and efforts are underway to collect it from private companies as well, a spokesperson told Business Insider.

HHS said it was working on more than 15 data-use agreements with private firms that could cover a variety of issues, including patient information and security protocols, allowing officials to collect more data.

HHS said Protect was built to meet security standards that allow it to collect, verify, and share personal information, including health data.

HHS declined to name all the companies involved in the project or explain their roles. But the spokesperson said the list of contributors — including local governments, academic institutions, and the private sector — was broad.

“Private sector companies are partnering with HHS and providing data on a voluntary basis to help us get a better understanding of the common operating picture associated with multiple areas of interests related to the coronavirus pandemic,” HHS said. 

The medical-records companies Cerner, Meditech, CPSI, and Allscripts did not respond to a request for comment about whether they were providing data to the project.

Epic Systems said it was in conversations with the federal government about how it might support coronavirus efforts but declined to comment further on HHS Protect.

The companies already share information with government agencies.

The project, which is run by HHS’s Office of the Chief Information Officer, is trying to anticipate where the virus is heading and keep government officials informed, broadly speaking. 

It’s not clear which Palantir products HHS is using to comb through ventilator, bed, and intensive-care-unit use — and the rest of the information stored there — but the partnership is ongoing, HHS said. 

They’re working together to analyze and model more than 200 datasets from about 5,700 hospitals and report directly to White House officials, governors, and local leaders, according to HHS. 

For instance, Palantir engineers and the US Digital Service compile nightly reports for Dr. Deborah Birx, a key member of President Donald Trump’s coronavirus task force, according to HHS and The Daily Beast. 

Palantir was started in 2003 by Thiel and CEO Alex Karp, among other founders. The company specializes in analyzing complicated sets of data, Business Insider’s Rosalie Chan previously reported.

Thiel is a venture capitalist and Trump supporter who spoke at the 2016 Republican National Convention. Karp has described himself as a socialist.

It’s not the first government contract awarded to Palantir during the Trump era. Earlier this year, Palantir received two contracts worth $17.3 million and $800 million for unrelated data work, according to The Daily Beast and Bloomberg News.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment about the effort.

HHS leans on tech companies for help with data because health information often arrives in a variety of spreadsheets, PDFs, emails, and electronic files that are difficult to interpret, according to Steve Kearney, a medical director at SAS Institute. He declined to say whether SAS was involved with HHS Protect specifically but said the software company was helping HHS officials with a variety of coronavirus-related data projects.

“There’s a lot of time and money and resources that are put into the data and the data management before we ever get to analytics and actually doing something with it,” he said in an interview, referring to SAS’s work with the federal government and providers.

Hospitals typically record patient data into electronic records and communicate it with data messages and coded terminologies, called “standards,” to other parties. But no such languages exist for many of the things regulators are asking about, according to Stan Huff, the chief medical informatics officer at Intermountain Healthcare.

“There is no standard right now, for instance, for us to share with people the number of beds that we have available, the number of respirators we have available, what the distribution is of those beds, and whether they’re in Salt Lake or whether they’re in Fillmore, which is a small town in the middle of Utah,” Huff said in an interview. 

For regulators on the receiving end, the lack of standards can make hospital reports just as varied as the groups that send them. For providers, it caused confusion at the start of the pandemic as to how to package the data, not to mention collect it, according to Huff. 

HHS said it set up Protect quickly and was not delayed by the nature of hospitals’ reports. At the same time, it’s taking steps to minimize the administrative burden on the health system by creating multiple avenues for data submission.

In March, the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology released rules meant to support the exchange of electronic health information. But the deadline for compliance was recently extended because of coronavirus outbreaks. 

“Had our rule been in place a couple years ago, a lot of this stuff could be usable,” its spokesperson said in an interview. 

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