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Can Smart Phone Apps Help Beat Pandemics?

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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

Taking Microfluidics to New Lengths

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Fiber Microfluidics

Caption: Microfluidic fiber sorting a solution containing either live or dead cells. The type of cell being imaged and the real time voltage (30v) is displayed at bottom. It is easy to imagine how this could be used to sort a mixture of live and dead cells. Credit: Yuan et al., PNAS

Microfluidics—the manipulation of fluids on a microscopic scale— has made it possible to produce “lab-on-a-chip” devices that detect, for instance, the presence of Ebola virus in a single drop of blood. Now, researchers hope to apply the precision of microfluidics to a much broader range of biomedical problems. Their secret? Move the microlab from chips to fibers.

To do this, an NIH-funded team builds microscopic channels into individual synthetic polymer fibers reaching 525 feet, or nearly two football fields long! As shown in this video, the team has already used such fibers to sort live cells from dead ones about 100 times faster than current methods, relying only on natural differences in the cells’ electrical properties. With further design and development, the new, fiber-based systems hold great promise for, among other things, improving kidney dialysis and detecting metastatic cancer cells in a patient’s bloodstream.

Wearable mHealth Device Detects Abnormal Heart Rhythms Earlier

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Zio patch

Caption: Woman wearing a Zio patch
Credit: Adapted from JAMA Network Summary Video

As many as 6 million Americans experience a common type of irregular heartbeat, called atrial fibrillation (AFib), that can greatly increase their risk of stroke and heart failure [1]. There are several things that can be done to lower that risk, but the problem is that a lot of folks have no clue that their heart’s rhythm is out of whack!

So, what can we do to detect AFib and get people into treatment before it’s too late? New results from an NIH-funded study lend additional support to the idea that one answer may lie in wearable health technology: a wireless electrocardiogram (EKG) patch that can be used to monitor a person’s heart rate at home.

Built for the Future. Study Shows Wearable Devices Can Help Detect Illness Early

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Michael Snyder wearing monitors

Caption: Stanford University’s Michael Snyder displays some of his wearable devices.
Credit: Steve Fisch/Stanford School of Medicine

Millions of Americans now head out the door each day wearing devices that count their steps, check their heart rates, and help them stay fit in general. But with further research, these “wearables” could also play an important role in the early detection of serious medical conditions. In partnership with health-care professionals, people may well use the next generation of wearables to monitor vital signs, blood oxygen levels, and a wide variety of other measures of personal health, allowing them to see in real time when something isn’t normal and, if unusual enough, to have it checked out right away.

In the latest issue of the journal PLoS Biology [1], an NIH-supported study offers an exciting glimpse of this future. Wearing a commercially available smartwatch over many months, more than 40 adults produced a continuous daily stream of accurate personal health data that researchers could access and monitor. When combined with standard laboratory blood tests, these data—totaling more than 250,000 bodily measurements a day per person—can detect early infections through changes in heart rate.

Creative Minds: Stretching the Limits of Wearable Devices

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Darren Lipomi

Darren Lipomi/ Credit: UC, San Diego

Whether it’s a pedometer dangling from a belt loop or a skin patch to monitor heart rate and hydration levels, wearable and mobile devices have become essential gear for many of today’s fitness minded. But Darren Lipomi, a nanoengineer at the University of California, San Diego, envisions even more impressive things to come for optimizing workouts and bringing greater precision to health care. Lipomi is helping to build a future of “stretchable electronics,” semiconducting devices that will more seamlessly integrate with the contours of our bodies, outside and even inside, to monitor vital signs, muscle activity, metabolic changes, and organ function—to name just a few possibilities.

Lipomi and his colleagues specifically want to create a new class of semiconducting polymer that has the mechanical properties of human skin. This transparent “electronic skin” will have a soft elasticity to conform to shape, sense contact, absorb blunt force, and even self heal when dinged. It will do all of this—and possibly more—while continuously and wirelessly performing its programmed health-monitoring function. To help Lipomi build this future of real-time health monitoring, he has been awarded a 2015 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award. This NIH award supports exceptionally creative new investigators who propose highly innovative projects with the potential for unusually high impact.

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