Skip to main content

cell phone

Can Smart Phone Apps Help Beat Pandemics?

Posted on by

Crowd of people with connection symbols.

In recent weeks, most of us have spent a lot of time learning about coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) and thinking about what’s needed to defeat this and future pandemic threats. When the time comes for people to come out of their home seclusion, how will we avoid a second wave of infections? One thing that’s crucial is developing better ways to trace the recent contacts of individuals who’ve tested positive for the disease-causing agent—in this case, a highly infectious novel coronavirus.

Traditional contact tracing involves a team of public health workers who talk to people via the phone or in face-to-face meetings. This time-consuming, methodical process is usually measured in days, and can even stretch to weeks in complex situations with multiple contacts. But researchers are now proposing to take advantage of digital technology to try to get contact tracing done much faster, perhaps in just a few hours.

Most smart phones are equipped with wireless Bluetooth technology that creates a log of all opt-in mobile apps operating nearby—including opt-in apps on the phones of nearby people. This has prompted a number of research teams to explore 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. In fact, in a recent paper in the journal Science, a British research group has gone so far to suggest that such digital tracing may be valuable in the months ahead to improve our chances of keeping COVID-19 under control [1].

The British team, led by Luca Ferretti, Christophe Fraser, and David Bonsall, Oxford University, started their analyses using previously published data on COVID-19 outbreaks in China, Singapore, and aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship. With a focus on prevention, the researchers compared the different routes of transmission, including from people with and without symptoms of the infection.

Based on that data, they concluded that traditional contact tracing was too slow to keep pace with the rapidly spreading COVID-19 outbreaks. During the three outbreaks studied, people infected with the novel coronavirus had a median incubation period of about five days before they showed any symptoms of COVID-19. Researchers estimated that anywhere from one-third to one-half of all transmissions came from asymptomatic people during this incubation period. Moreover, assuming that symptoms ultimately arose and an infected person was then tested and received a COVID-19 diagnosis, public health workers would need at least several more days to perform the contact tracing by traditional means. By then, they would have little chance of getting ahead of the outbreak by isolating the infected person’s contacts to slow its rate of transmission.

When they examined the situation in China, the researchers found that available data show a correlation between the roll-out of smart phone contact-tracing apps and the emergence of what appears to be sustained suppression of COVID-19 infection. Their analyses showed that the same held true in South Korea, where data collected through a smart phone app was used to recommend quarantine.

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 relayed to a central database the information that it had gathered on phone users’ movements and COVID-19 status, raising serious concerns about data security and privacy of personal information.

In their new paper, the Oxford team, which included a bioethicist, 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. Although the team analyzed digital tracing data for COVID-19, the algorithms that drive these apps could be adapted to track the spread of other common infectious diseases, such as seasonal influenza.

The study’s authors also raised another vital point. Even the most-sophisticated digital tracing app won’t be of much help if smart phone users don’t download it. Without widespread installation, the apps are unable to gather enough data to enable effective digital tracing. Indeed, the researchers estimate that about 60 percent of new COVID-19 cases in a community would need to be detected–and roughly the same percentage of contacts traced—to squelch the spread of the deadly virus.

Such numbers have app designers working hard to discover the right balance between protecting public health and ensuring personal rights. That includes NIH grantee Trevor Bedford, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle. He 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. Here at NIH, we have a team that is actively exploring the kind of technology that could achieve the benefits without unduly compromising personal privacy.

Bedford emphasizes that he and his colleagues aren’t trying to duplicate efforts already underway. Rather, they want to collaborate with others help to build a scientifically and ethically sound foundation for digital tracing aimed at improving the health of all humankind.


[1] Quantifying SARS-CoV-2 transmission suggests epidemic control with digital contact tracing. Ferretti L, Wymant C, Kendall M, Zhao L, Nurtay A, Abeler-Dörner L, Parker M, Bonsall D, Fraser C. Science. 2020 Mar 31. [Epub ahead of print]


Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

COVID-19, MERS & SARS (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)

NextTrace (Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle)

Bedford Lab (Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center)

NIH Support: National Institute of General Medical Sciences

Seven More Awesome Technologies Made Possible by Your Tax Dollars

Posted on by

We live in a world energized by technological advances, from that new app on your smartphone to drones and self-driving cars. As you can see from this video, NIH-supported researchers are also major contributors, developing a wide range of amazing biomedical technologies that offer tremendous potential to improve our health.

Produced by the NIH’s National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB), this video starts by showcasing some cool fluorescent markers that are custom-designed to light up specific cells in the body. This technology is already helping surgeons see and remove tumor cells with greater precision in people with head and neck cancer [1]. Further down the road, it might also be used to light up nerves, which can be very difficult to see—and spare—during operations for cancer and other conditions.

Other great things to come include:

  • A wearable tattoo that detects alcohol levels in perspiration and wirelessly transmits the information to a smartphone.
  • Flexible coils that produce high quality images during magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) [2-3]. In the future, these individualized, screen-printed coils may improve the comfort and decrease the scan times of people undergoing MRI, especially infants and small children.
  • A time-release capsule filled with a star-shaped polymer containing the anti-malarial drug ivermectin. The capsule slowly dissolves in the stomach over two weeks, with the goal of reducing the need for daily doses of ivermectin to prevent malaria infections in at-risk people [4].
  • A new radiotracer to detect prostate cancer that has spread to other parts of the body. Early clinical trial results show the radiotracer, made up of carrier molecules bonded tightly to a radioactive atom, appears to be safe and effective [5].
  • A new supercooling technique that promises to extend the time that organs donated for transplantation can remain viable outside the body [6-7]. For example, current technology can preserve donated livers outside the body for just 24 hours. In animal studies, this new technique quadruples that storage time to up to four days.
  • A wearable skin patch with dissolvable microneedles capable of effectively delivering an influenza vaccine. This painless technology, which has produced promising early results in humans, may offer a simple, affordable alternative to needle-and-syringe immunization [8].

If you like what you see here, be sure to check out this previous NIH video that shows six more awesome biomedical technologies that your tax dollars are helping to create. So, let me extend a big thanks to you from those of us at NIH—and from all Americans who care about the future of their health—for your strong, continued support!


[1] Image-guided surgery in cancer: A strategy to reduce incidence of positive surgical margins. Wiley Interdiscip Rev Syst Biol Med. 2018 Feb 23.

[2] Screen-printed flexible MRI receive coils. Corea JR, Flynn AM, Lechêne B, Scott G, Reed GD, Shin PJ, Lustig M, Arias AC. Nat Commun. 2016 Mar 10;7:10839.

[3] Printed Receive Coils with High Acoustic Transparency for Magnetic Resonance Guided Focused Ultrasound. Corea J, Ye P, Seo D, Butts-Pauly K, Arias AC, Lustig M. Sci Rep. 2018 Feb 21;8(1):3392.

[4] Oral, ultra-long-lasting drug delivery: Application toward malaria elimination goals. Bellinger AM, Jafari M1, Grant TM, Zhang S, Slater HC, Wenger EA, Mo S, Lee YL, Mazdiyasni H, Kogan L, Barman R, Cleveland C, Booth L, Bensel T, Minahan D, Hurowitz HM, Tai T, Daily J, Nikolic B, Wood L, Eckhoff PA, Langer R, Traverso G. Sci Transl Med. 2016 Nov 16;8(365):365ra157.

[5] Clinical Translation of a Dual Integrin avb3– and Gastrin-Releasing Peptide Receptor–Targeting PET Radiotracer, 68Ga-BBN-RGD. Zhang J, Niu G, Lang L, Li F, Fan X, Yan X, Yao S, Yan W, Huo L, Chen L, Li Z, Zhu Z, Chen X. J Nucl Med. 2017 Feb;58(2):228-234.

[6] Supercooling enables long-term transplantation survival following 4 days of liver preservation. Berendsen TA, Bruinsma BG, Puts CF, Saeidi N, Usta OB, Uygun BE, Izamis ML, Toner M, Yarmush ML, Uygun K. Nat Med. 2014 Jul;20(7):790-793.

[7] The promise of organ and tissue preservation to transform medicine. Giwa S, Lewis JK, Alvarez L, Langer R, Roth AE, et a. Nat Biotechnol. 2017 Jun 7;35(6):530-542.

[8] The safety, immunogenicity, and acceptability of inactivated influenza vaccine delivered by microneedle patch (TIV-MNP 2015): a randomised, partly blinded, placebo-controlled, phase 1 trial. Rouphael NG, Paine M, Mosley R, Henry S, McAllister DV, Kalluri H, Pewin W, Frew PM, Yu T, Thornburg NJ, Kabbani S, Lai L, Vassilieva EV, Skountzou I, Compans RW, Mulligan MJ, Prausnitz MR; TIV-MNP 2015 Study Group.


National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIH)

Center for Wearable Sensors (University of California, San Diego)

Hyperpolarized MRI Technology Resource Center (University of California, San Francisco)

Center for Engineering in Medicine (Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston)

Center for Drug Design, Development and Delivery (Georgia Tech University, Atlanta)

NIH Support: National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering; National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

Snapshots of Life: A Kaleidoscope of Worms

Posted on by

C. elegans

Credit: Adam Brown and David Biron, University of Chicago

What might appear to be a view inside an unusual kaleidoscope is actually a laboratory plate full of ravenous roundworms (Caenorhabditis elegans) as seen through a microscope. Tens of thousands of worms (black), each about 1 millimeter in length at adulthood, are grazing on a field of bacteria beneath them. The yellow is a jelly-like growth medium called agar that feeds the bacteria, and the orange along the borders was added to enhance the sunburst effect.

The photo was snapped and stylized by NIH training grantee Adam Brown, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in the lab of David Biron at the University of Chicago. Brown uses C. elegans to study the neurotransmitter serotonin, a popular drug target in people receiving treatment for depression and other psychiatric disorders. This tiny, soil-dwelling worm is a go-to model organism for neuroscientists because of its relative simplicity, short life spans, genetic malleability, and complete cell-fate map. By manipulating the different components of the serotonin-signaling system in C. elegans, Brown and his colleagues hope to better understand the most basic circuitry in the central nervous system that underlies decision making, in this case choosing to feed or forage.