Can smart phone apps help beat pandemics?

Health

(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.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Coronavirus COVID-19 videos

Trump's convention demand comes amid Charlotte virus surge

Thumbnail for the video titled "Trump's convention demand comes amid Charlotte virus surge"

Virus expands grip in many areas, as US nears 100,000 deaths

Thumbnail for the video titled "Virus expands grip in many areas, as US nears 100,000 deaths"

3 West Knoxville Kroger employees test positive for coronavirus

Thumbnail for the video titled "3 West Knoxville Kroger employees test positive for coronavirus"

Tellico Village restaurant forced to close

Thumbnail for the video titled "Tellico Village restaurant forced to close"

College graduates struggling with job market during pandemic

Thumbnail for the video titled "College graduates struggling with job market during pandemic"

Farragut cancels Independence Day parade

Thumbnail for the video titled "Farragut cancels Independence Day parade"

Three test positive for COVID-19 at Newell plant

Thumbnail for the video titled "Three test positive for COVID-19 at Newell plant"

Athens nursing home says 14 have died from COVID-19

Thumbnail for the video titled "Athens nursing home says 14 have died from COVID-19"

UT Knoxville announces fall semester changes

Thumbnail for the video titled "UT Knoxville announces fall semester changes"

Knox County Health Dept.: Increase in active COVID-19 cases

Thumbnail for the video titled "Knox County Health Dept.: Increase in active COVID-19 cases"

Restaurants getting closer to normalcy during reopening phase 2

Thumbnail for the video titled "Restaurants getting closer to normalcy during reopening phase 2"

Knox County Health Department briefing on the first day of phase 2 reopening in the coronavirus pandemic

Thumbnail for the video titled "Knox County Health Department briefing on the first day of phase 2 reopening in the coronavirus pandemic"

People pack into DC war memorials despite pandemic

Thumbnail for the video titled "People pack into DC war memorials despite pandemic"

Distance rules 'hard to enforce' on beaches

Thumbnail for the video titled "Distance rules 'hard to enforce' on beaches"

Appalachian Trail reopens with precautions

Thumbnail for the video titled "Appalachian Trail reopens with precautions"

Hancock County records first COVID-19 case

Thumbnail for the video titled "Hancock County records first COVID-19 case"

Drug overdoses in Memphis spike during virus outbreak

Thumbnail for the video titled "Drug overdoses in Memphis spike during virus outbreak"

Dept. of Health and Human Services addressing money sent to closed hospital

Thumbnail for the video titled "Dept. of Health and Human Services addressing money sent to closed hospital"

Safe Space among nonprofits feeling pinch during COVID-19 pandemic

Thumbnail for the video titled "Safe Space among nonprofits feeling pinch during COVID-19 pandemic"

ETSU Tennessee Poll shows support for Republican candidates, split on mail voting

Thumbnail for the video titled "ETSU Tennessee Poll shows support for Republican candidates, split on mail voting"

WATE 6 On Your Side Twitter