Three researchers at the University of Oxford want to build an app to serve as a control center for coping with the coronavirus. The app could do everything from sharing information about the coronavirus to tracking contact with other people to testing and even food delivery.

This approach could replace contact tracing, a tactic that has helped several Asian countries control the outbreak in their communities. The app also could build herd immunity more quickly, which could reduce the impact of the virus.

In a blog post on the Big Data Institute’s website, Professor Christophe Fraser from Oxford University’s Big Data Institute said the app could be a solution for one of the more dangerous elements of COVID-19, the fact that people with no symptoms can pass the virus to other people.

“Our analysis suggests that almost half of coronavirus transmissions occur in the very early phase of infection, before symptoms appear, so we need a fast and effective mobile app for alerting people who have been exposed,” he said. “If you are diagnosed with coronavirus, the people you’ve recently come into contact with will be messaged advising them to isolate.”

Fraser is an author of the proposal along with David Bonsall, Big Data Institute, University of Oxford, UK, and Michael Parker, Wellcome Centre for Ethics and the Humanities and Ethox Centre, University of Oxford,UK.

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The team proposes that the app be the central information hub for all coronavirus information, health services, and instructions. A person could use the app to request a test if symptoms develop, and to request food deliveries if self-isolation becomes necessary. The app keeps track of other people that the user comes in contact with in the community. If the app user tests positive, the results go directly to a central server and suggests a quarantine or social distancing measures for the individual and the people known to be possible contacts.

In the same blog post, Bonsall said not everybody has to use the mobile app for it to work, but they are counting on goodwill toward fellow humans to generate a user base.

“If, with the help of the app, the majority of individuals self-isolate on showing symptoms and the majority of their contacts can be traced, we stand a chance of stopping the epidemic,” he said. “To work, this approach needs to be integrated into a national program, not taken on by independent app developers.”

China’s approach to tracking apps and the coronavirus

China used an app to control the spread of the virus and the movement of individuals. In China, people had to use the app if they wanted to be in public spaces and use public transport. The app monitored the person’s movements and recorded the person’s coronavirus status in a central database. The app gave each user a green, yellow, or red code to set limits on a person’s behavior: Free movement, local movement only, or quarantine.
The Chinese app collected user data in three ways:

  • Proximity sensing between phones
  • Co-location by GPS
  • QR code scanning at the entrance and exit of places without cell connectivity, such as underground buildings

The team in Britain wants people to use them voluntarily, as opposed to the stricter controls used in China. The researchers think this approach would be more acceptable to people in democratic countries.

Digital transformation for contact tracing

In China, contact tracing was as important as lock downs to control the spread of the virus. In the Report of the WHO-China Joint Mission on Coronvirus Disease 2019, officials reported that in Wuhan more than 1,800 teams of epidemiologists, with a minimum of five people per team traced tens of thousands of contacts a day, adding that “contact follow up is painstaking.”

Once a person has a confirmed case of the coronavirus, public health workers document the individual’s activities and contacts, including family members, colleagues, friends, and healthcare providers. The next step is to contact all those people and screen them for the coronavirus. After this initial screening, public health officials follow up with these contacts to monitor for symptoms.

In Singapore, authorities have traced 6,000 people, using a combination of CCTV footage, police investigation, and labor-intensive detective work including a simple telephone call. The British team suggests that the app could replace a week’s worth of manual contract tracing with an instantaneous signal transmitted to and from a central server.

How to build trust in the app

Authors of the proposal made these recommendations for encouraging people to use the app:

  • Oversight by an inclusive and transparent advisory board
  • Publication of ethical principles for the app
  • Guarantees of equity of access and treatment
  • Use of a transparent and auditable algorithm
  • Establishing evaluation and research to prepare for future outbreaks
  • Oversight of and protections for use of the data
  • Sharing data and knowledge with other countries

The proposal is called “Sustainable containment of COVID-19 using smartphones in China: Scientific and ethical underpinnings for implementation of similar approaches in other settings.”
The Big Data Institute analyzes large, complex data sets to understand the causes, prevention, and treatment of disease. BDI researchers develop, test, and deploy methods for acquiring and analysing information for large clinical research studies.

Researchers at the Big Data Institute in the UK want to take the manual process of contact tracking digital with a mobile app that can help with tracking, testing, and even food delivery.
Image: Big Data Institute