Coronavirus: Mobile app that can trace and warn individuals of exposure to infected people is need of the hour
Current strategies are not working fast enough to intercept the transmission of coronavirus. To effectively tackle this pandemic we need to harness latest technology, say experts
After crossing borders and infecting more than 200,000 people worldwide, the new coronavirus seems unstoppable now. However, digital technology can help humans intercept the virus before it infiltrates an entire community, according to a group of UK scientists.
The team makes the case for a mobile app that is capable of identifying infected people and tracing others who may have come in contact with them. This elaborate detective work is called contact tracing.
After confirming a positive case, health workers turn detectives and set out to trace contacts. However, the whole process of doing this conventionally takes up a lot of time, enabling the virus to gain a foothold in a community.
"Current strategies are not working fast enough to intercept the transmission of coronavirus. To effectively tackle this pandemic we need to harness 21st-century technology. Our research makes the case for a mobile application that accelerates our ability to trace infected people and provides vital information that keeps communities safe from this pandemic, " says Dr Christophe Fraser from Oxford University.
Digital contact tracing is not a new concept, it banks on location information of individuals. South Korea used GPS phone tracking and video surveillance to trace the contacts of an infected person. And Israel has already passed an emergency law to use mobile phone data for the same.
Dr Fraser from Oxford University and his colleagues carried out a study to test the capability of conventional contact tracing in slowing down the pandemic.
The team predicts that conventional contact tracing is not efficient in slowing down the virus. "Our research of early data from other countries shows that patient histories are incomplete — we don't know the details of the person we sat next to on the bus. We need an instantaneous and anonymous digital solution to confirm our person-to-person contact history," Dr David Bonsall researcher at Oxford's Nuffield Department of Medicine, who is also a part of the team, explains.
A mobile app, on the other hand, is simple. Once a person is diagnosed with the infection, the app will use location data to trace contacts and inform them of possible exposure to an infected individual. It will also advise them to isolate themselves.
"If this mobile app is developed and deployed rapidly, and enough people opt-in to use such an approach, we can slow the spread of coronavirus and mitigate against devastating human, economic and social impacts," explains Dr Fraser.
One issue with implementing digital contact tracing is privacy concerns. The app needs to guarantee equal access and treatment while also addressing privacy and data usage concerns, says Dr Michael Parker, Director of the Wellcome Centre for Ethics & Humanities and Ethox Centre.
The team recommends that countries should consider adopting digital tracing along with social distancing until a vaccine becomes available. They are now supporting several European governments to explore the feasibility of a coronavirus mobile app for instant contact tracing.
You can find the study here.