Slowing down the virus spread: how efficient are contact tracing apps?
One of the best tools to slow the spread of the coronavirus is, as you have no doubt heard by now, contact tracing. But what exactly is contact tracing, who does it and how, and do you need to worry about it? In short, contact tracing helps prevent the spread of a virus by proactively and automatically finding people at higher risk than others due to potential exposure, notifying them if possible, and quarantining them if necessary. It’s a proven technique, and smartphones could help make it even more effective — but only if privacy and other concerns can be overcome.
THE TECH SIDE OF CORONAVIRUS BATTLE
Until very recently, the process was entirely manual and has relied heavily on the efforts of large number of healthcare workers to track the virus infections. Is a little like detective work: trained staff interview people who have been diagnosed with a contagious disease to figure out who they may have recently been in contact with. This results in a list of contacts that is far from complete, though still very helpful. This means that infected persons need to recall of people who, until prompted, were probably not paying special attention to their movements and interactions. This results in a list of contacts that is far from complete, though still very helpful. If those people can be contacted and their contacts likewise traced, a network of potential infections can be built up without a single swab or blood drop and lives can be saved or important resources better allocated. Think of it as part public health work, and part investigation. But thanks to the ubiquity of digital devices, technology can now play a much bigger role in the contact tracing process.
Today, many countries are battling the coronavirus using a combination of old-school contact tracing techniques and more technologically sophisticated methods.
Although most of us don't know about it, contact tracing was used during the 2014 Ebola virus outbreak, as well as in the SARS outbreak in 2003. This method was critical during the 2014-2015 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. The effort to track down cases in Liberia was one of the largest-ever such initiatives at the time, though its effectiveness was limited by organizational problems and community mistrust of health care workers. It’s also used to combat sexually transmitted infections and other communicable diseases like tuberculosis.
AN APP WITH A GLOBAL APPROACH
As COVID-19 knows no barriers, countries like Singapore, South Korea, Israel or New Zealand have aggressively used contact tracing in an attempt to control outbreaks. Albeit the pandemic is of global impact, most countries have developed contact tracing apps on a national level, adapted to their needs. Today, many countries are battling the coronavirus using a combination of old-school contact tracing techniques (manual tasks) and more technologically sophisticated methods (through smartphones).
At least 29 countries are now using mobile data to help with contact tracing.
South Korea is one country that has successfully leveraged contact tracing technologies, using the timeline feature of Google Maps to have citizens voluntarily record their locations, as well as drawing on data from credit card and telecommunications companies.
Singapore’s contact tracing app, TraceTogether, was launched on March 20 and claims to be the first national BlueTooth tracing solution in the world. It now boasts about 1.1 million users, just under 16% of the country’s population, and the government has made publicly available the app’s protocol.
India is the second after Singapore where it has been reached 50 million downloads on Android phones, but this means still only a rough 10% of smartphone users and aprox. 3,5% of the population.
In China, around 9,000 contact tracers were employed in Wuhan alone and the government has implemented a variety of tracking procedures through mega-popular services like WeChat and Alipay.
The Canadian government has launched a nationwide contact tracing program, which has brought on 27,000 volunteers.
Israel uses high tech methods for contact tracing on a centralized, surveillance based approach, which is viewed as invasive and unacceptable for privacy reasons.
In Australia, the government has suggested such apps could be mandatory.
Italian carmaker Ferrari is rolling out a voluntary contact-tracing app as part of its programme for safely re-opening its factories.
COULD THE TECH GIANTS SUPPORT NATIONAL BUILT APPS?
A more global approach is being done by the two tech giants, Google and Apple, who have announced a contact-tracing tool for their smartphone operating systems, which will be available to public health authorities everywhere by mid-May. The Apple and Google technology would still put the contact-tracing power in the hands of national authorities, but individuals would only be sharing the minimum data necessary with the state. The companies aren’t building an actual app; they’re providing a toolkit for health services to build their own. And if the latter abused the technology, Apple and Google can always veto apps from their online stores.
EUROPE WON'T GIVE UP THE PRIVACY BASED APPROACH
Last, but not least, what about the European Union? An international team consisting of more than 130 members working across more than seven European countries including scientists, technologists, and experts from well-known research institutions and companies have developed the Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT) initiative. It is an anonymous and privacy-preserving digital contact tracing approach, which is in full compliance with GDPR and can also be used when traveling between countries through an anonymous multi-country exchange mechanism. No personal data, no location, no Mac-Id of any user is stored or transmitted. PEPP-PT is designed to be incorporated in national mobile phone apps as a contact tracing functionality and allows for the integration into the processes of national health services. The solution is offered to be shared openly with any country, given the commitment to achieve interoperability so that the anonymous multi-country exchange mechanism remains functional.
Contact tracing is an important part of the effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus, and whatever method or platform is decided on in our countries — it may be different state to state or even between cities — it is important that as many people as possible take part in order to make it as effective as possible.