Coronavirus: New app will trace persons in contact with patients and this can rein in the pandemic

The project called NextTrace will digitize contact tracing, a mammoth task carried out manually by health workers


                            Coronavirus: New app will trace persons in contact with patients and this can rein in the pandemic
(Getty Images)

The new coronavirus appears to be spreading like wildfire and to keep up with its speed, the world needs to embrace digital technology.  Keeping this in mind, US researchers have launched a project to identify individuals who may have come into contact with infected COVID-19 patients.

The project called NextTrace will digitize contact tracing, a mammoth task carried out manually by health workers.  They trace contacts of infected patients and ask then to quarantine, thereby preventing further spread of the disease.

"If people do not encounter each other, they cannot spread infection, regardless of whether they are infected or not," explains Trevor Bedford, an infectious disease modeler and genomics expert at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, who runs NextTrace.

But conventional tracing takes days. Digital contact tracing, on the other hand, can save time. The technology banks on phone location data and proximity data to detect possible exposures.

 "So much of this virus’s transmission, maybe 15% of total cases, are from people who don’t feel sick,” a mathematical biologist Lauren Ancel Meyers of the University of Texas at Austin, who is advising NextTrace, told STAT.

“And it’s spreading so quickly, with as few as four days from when one person shows symptoms to when people he infects does. It would, therefore, take a heroic effort and very fast quarantine and isolation to identify, by traditional methods, every person who’s infected, and every person they contact, and everyone they contact," Meyers added.

Recently, researchers from Oxford University made the case for digital contact tracing. “Traditional manual contact tracing procedures are not fast enough for [the new coronavirus],” they wrote in a paper. But digital technology “can make contact tracing and notification instantaneous.”

The project called NextTrace will digitize contact tracing, a mammoth task carried out manually by health workers (Getty Images)

What does the project do?

Infected individuals will be able to register themselves anonymously on the online platform or app.  If users permit, the app will use phone location data to trace out people who may have been exposed to the infected patient. The app will then warn and advise them to quarantine and get themselves tested. 

The app will roughly mimic what health workers normally do. It would build a contact history for the registered case, listing out contact events with other individuals that could potentially have led to a spread.

If exposed individuals test positive, they will be isolated, according to developers of the project. Because people tend to be very contagious soon after symptoms appear, tracing out them will go a long way in helping stem the spread.

The project will ensure that the data is secure and privacy is maintained. "This needs a great deal of attention to get right," Dr. Bedford tweeted. Currently, the virus has infected 216,722 people and killed 5,137 people in the US, according to Johns Hopkins University.

"Therefore, in addition to individual-level interventions, we will use this platform to help inform containment policies at the community level," he tweeted.

Others have also developed digital tracing apps such as Singapore’s TraceTogether app, the Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing initiative in Europe, and Massachusetts-based Safe Paths.

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