Smartphone Apps Might Track, Slow Spread of COVID-19

THURSDAY, April 9, 2020 (HealthDay News) -- Your smartphone could help stem the spread of coronavirus, British researchers claim.

How? Their proposal for an app would record other app users who had recently been in close proximity. If a user became infected, he or she would update their status on their smartphone app, which would instantly and anonymously contact those app users who had been near the infected person.

"This app is a fantastic opportunity for all citizens to contribute towards controlling the epidemic, protecting their families, and avoiding a resurgence of COVID-19 in their own communities," said team co-leader Dr. David Bonsall. He is a senior researcher at Oxford University's Nuffield Department of Medicine.

His team published a paper on their proposal recently in the journal Science. It stressed that the app would need widespread adoption to be effective.

"We're particularly interested in the overall number of users adopting the app, because we know from our research into the transmission dynamics of COVID-19 that people are infectious, on average, five days before they show any symptoms," Bonsall said.

"In addition, we've assessed that nearly 50% of transmissions in the early phase of China's epidemic were from this early stage of infection," he added. "As such, we need to have the majority of users installed and recording their close contacts so when we are able to ease lockdown measures, citizens at large can confirm infection and alert those people who they have been in close physical contact with over the preceding five days."

Other teams around the world are working on similar apps.

A group led by scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is developing a system that augments contact tracing by public health officials, while preserving individual privacy.

The system relies on short-range Bluetooth signals emitted from people's smartphones. These signals are likened to "chirps" that other nearby smartphones can remember hearing, the researchers explained.

If a person tests positive, they can upload the list of chirps their phone has put out in the past 14 days to a database. Other people can then scan the database to see if any of those chirps match the ones picked up by their phones. If there's a match, a notification will inform that person that he or she may have been exposed to the virus, and will include information from public health authorities on the next steps to take.

"I keep track of what I've broadcasted, and you keep track of what you've heard, and this will allow us to tell if someone was in close proximity to an infected person," explained lead investigator Ron Rivest, a professor at MIT.

"But for these broadcasts, we're using cryptographic techniques to generate random, rotating numbers that are not just anonymous, but pseudonymous, constantly changing their 'ID,' and that can't be traced back to an individual," Rivest explained in an MIT news release.

China has already been using a phone app to fight the pandemic. Residents must scan posted barcodes to log locations they are visiting or to use public transport. The app displays their identity and a color code for their health status: green, if symptom-free; yellow, if recently in contact with an infected person and should be in quarantine; or red, infected, the Associated Press reported recently. Officials at checkpoints inspect the color code to see if a person should be traveling or quarantined.

The Oxford team noted that the Chinese app and one employed by South Korea have been criticized for issues with privacy and data protection.

"We looked at the technology used in other Asian countries, early on in the epidemic, and considered what was working effectively at controlling the epidemics," Bonsall said. "With our mathematical modeling and bioethics analyses, we came up with a concept that would be possible in countries committed to placing user and patient privacy at the heart of their intervention strategies," he said.

"We have shared our evidence with several European partners," Bonsall noted. "We are keen to share our research efforts with all countries interested in developing a concept with the same underlying values as ours."

Dr. Mike Sevilla is a practicing family physician at the Family Practice Center of Salem and the Salem Regional Medical Center, both in Ohio. He's written about the role of social media and related technology in medicine.

Sevilla said such an app could combat COVID-19 spread if widely adopted, but he believed its audience in the United States would be limited.

"For those Americans who already report their health status on their phone, this app would work great," Sevilla said. "There are Americans, with smart watches and other wearables, who freely track and report their health. However, this is a minority of the U.S. population," he noted.

"App use is based on ease of use [or lack of ease of use], cost [free or not], the 'fun' factor, and if their friends are using the app," Sevilla noted.

"Targeting a certain population initially would possibly work. For example, what if colleges and universities supported this app for their students? This is a population who use smartphones a lot and I think would be more likely to use the app. If it works with them, then this would give a signal that it could possibly work with other populations," Sevilla said.

More information

Visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for more on coronavirus.

SOURCES: David Bonsall, M.D., senior researcher, Oxford University's Nuffield Department of Medicine, and clinician, Oxford's John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, United Kingdom; Mike Sevilla, M.D., Family Practice Center of Salem and the Salem Regional Medical Center, both in Salem, Ohio; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, news release, April 9, 2020; March 31, 2020, Science

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