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Oxford Recommends Mobile App for Instant Contact Tracking in Time of Coronavirus

man using mobile phone in cafe

As described in a World Health Organization report on COVID-19, Chinese disease officials sent out more than 1,800 teams of epidemiologists with five people per team in Wuhan to track down the individuals that sick people may have come into contact with before they quarantined. A project underway at Oxford University wants to make that process instantaneous.

A team of medical research and bioethics experts at the university that have already done work in tracking disease spread are now pushing European governments to support development of a "contact tracing mobile app" that could be widely deployed while still adhering to "appropriate ethical considerations."

The concept of the app is simple: When somebody is diagnosed with coronavirus, "the people you've recently come into contact with will be messaged advising them to isolate," explained Professor Christophe Fraser from Oxford University's Big Data Institute, Nuffield Department of Medicine, in a statement.

Fraser said he believes that if the app were developed rapidly enough and a sufficient number of people opted in to its use, the spread of the virus would be slowed.

The team has recommended that the mobile app form part of an "integrated coronavirus control strategy" that uses digital technology to identify infected people and their recent person-to-person contact.

Fraser said the research team has modeled various approaches and found that traditional tracing methods used by public health departments "are too slow to keep up with this virus." As he noted, "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."

David Bonsall, a researcher in the Nuffield Department of Medicine and clinician at Oxford's John Radcliffe Hospital, said that research of the data from other countries has shown that "patient histories are incomplete — we don't know the details of the person we sat next to on the bus." The advantage of the mobile app approach is that it would provide "an instantaneous and anonymous digital solution to confirm our person-to-person contact history."

Bonsall emphasized that not everybody needed to use the app for it to have impact. "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."

For greatest success, he added, the approach needs to be "integrated into a national program, not taken on by independent app developers. If we can securely deploy this technology, the more people that opt in, the faster the epidemic will stop, and the more lives can be saved."

Among the considerations are ethics. Michael Parker, director of the Wellcome Centre for Ethics & Humanities and Ethox Centre, in Oxford's Nuffield Department of Population Health, said any such app would require "guaranteeing equal access and treatment; addressing privacy and data usage concerns; adopting a transparent and auditable algorithm; considering digital deployment strategies to support specific groups, such as healthcare workers, the elderly and the young; and, proceeding on the basis of individual consent."

The Oxford team agreed that the use of a mobile app should be combined with other measures we're already undertaking, including social distancing measures to reduce close contacts and regular handwashing and hygiene.

"Current strategies are not working fast enough to intercept transmission of coronavirus," said Fraser. "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."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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