Can smart phone apps help beat pandemics?

Coronavirus

(Photo by SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP via Getty Images)

Tracing the recent contacts of individuals who’ve tested positive for a disease is how researchers determine how it can spread.

Traditional contact tracing involves a team of public health workers and is time-consuming, but researchers are considering using digital technology to try to get contact tracing done much faster, according to a post written by the National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins.

Most smart phones can create a log of where mobile apps are being used including the phones of nearby people.

Now research teams are exploring the idea of creating an app to notify individuals of exposure risk.

Specifically, if a smart phone user tests positive today for COVID-19, everyone on their recent Bluetooth log would be alerted anonymously and advised to shelter at home.

A British research group even suggests that such digital tracing may be valuable in the months ahead to improve our chances of keeping COVID-19 under control. Although the team analyzed digital tracing data for COVID-19, the method could also track the spread of other common infectious diseases, such as seasonal influenza.

In a recent paper the Oxford University team started their analyses using previously published data on COVID-19 outbreaks in China, Singapore, and aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship.

Despite its potential benefits in controlling or even averting pandemics, the British researchers acknowledged that digital tracing poses some major ethical, legal, and social issues.

In China, people were required to install the digital tracing app on their phones if they wanted to venture outside their immediate neighborhoods. The app also displayed a color-coded warning system to enforce or relax restrictions on a person’s movements around a city or province. The Chinese app also sent information to a central database, raising serious concerns about data security and privacy of personal information.

The Oxford team makes the case for increased social dialogue about how best to employ digital tracing in ways the benefit human health. This is a far-reaching discussion with implications far beyond times of pandemic.

Trevor Bedford from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle and his colleagues just launched NextTrace, a project that aims to build an opt-in app community for “digital participatory contact tracing” of COVID-19. They want to build a scientifically and ethically sound foundation for digital tracing aimed at improving health.

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