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Contact tracing: Here is what the latest buzz word means in the fight against COVID-19

Apple and Google recently announced that they are working on a cross-platform contact tracing framework. Let’s check out what contact tracing means and how it can help fight coronavirus.

coronavirus digital virus render

The world is currently dealing with a highly infectious disease coronavirus that has been termed as a global pandemic. This pandemic, also known as COVID-19 is currently raging across the planet at an alarming rate bringing the economy to a sudden halt. In addition to the economy, this pandemic is also stretching the medical resources thin due to the width of infections. Governments across the world have been forced to lock down their countries asking citizens to practice social distancing. The real problem right now being that there is no cure for coronavirus. Amidst all this, the only thing that one can do is practice social distancing to try and avoid catching the infection. Also Read - Google thanks all coronavirus front line helpers in final Doodle

Multiple researchers, institutions, and pharmaceutical companies are studying COVID-19 in an attempt to make a vaccine and rapidly detect those infected. In addition to researchers, medical professionals and pharmacy companies, technology companies are also trying to do their part. Beyond the usual work from home rules, donations, and computing power to aid the vaccine research, new technology is underway. Technology giants including Apple and Google have teamed up to create a new operating system-level contact tracing feature. This feature will work across platforms in hopes to aid medical professionals. Contact tracing is in addition to the mobility reports that both companies have started publishing online. Also Read - Coronavirus: Apple Mobility data reveals more than 70 percent decline in walking and driving after lockdown

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You must have come across this “contact tracing” term in recent weeks. Most of you may be wondering what it means and how it works. Well, today, we will focus on what this technology means and how it works. It is worth noting that this is nothing new in the medical world. World Health Organization has used this technology to combat the Ebola outbreak in Africa a few years ago. Let’s dive in. Also Read - Coronavirus: US Senator questions contact tracing effort from Apple and Google

What is Contact tracing?

First, let’s answer the obvious question: what is contact tracing. Well, it is as simple as it sounds. Contact tracing means tracing the contact of a person with other people in the vicinity. It is identical to contact “tracking” but nobody is using the “tracking” term because of somewhat negative privacy-related concerns. This does not have to be strictly medical term or digital as it is applicable in multiple scenarios. Talking about the current scenario, this can trace all the people who were in contact with a confirmed patient. Medical authorities can contact potential patients, test them and further prevent or contain the spread.

Different efforts at contact tracing

Researching contact tracing, it is interesting to note that the medical professionals have long used contact tracing to combat infectious diseases. Most of the attempts in the past have been focused on human memory. Here, doctors or healthcare professionals generally ask the patients about all the people they may have come into contact with. The problem with manual recalling is that it is not foolproof. Not everyone is focusing on details about their movement and one may forget some in a highly stressful situation such as the hospital. So, here, a digital method will likely solve most issues.

Photo: Pixabay

Another important thing to note is that though most countries employ some sort of digital surveillance. However, this may not be absolute to create a complete map. Here are inevitable blank spots that can miss out on essential infection spots. The only thing such surveillance can be used in is for a more cursory movement tracking. Similarly, purely digital tracking, something that companies such as Amazon or Google do will only be useful to target ads at a user instead of fighting a disease.

Moving forward, several governments have already employed digital contact tracing to some degrees of success. The Singapore government had the most effective solution at the very beginning with its “TraceTogether” app. In South Korea, the people used several contact tracing apps to fight the virus. Taiwan combined contact tracing with its “centralized healthcare system” to limit the spread of COVID-19. It is worth noting that Taiwan started the development of the system to fight SARS a few years ago. China used apps and services such as “WeChat” and “AliPay” and India has also launched its official “Aarogya Setu” app.

Coronavirus tracker Aarogya Sethu 3

Differences between digital and manual tracing?

We have already reported about “Aarogya Setu” including how to get started, how it works and potential privacy concerns. The developers of the “Aarogya Setu” app reached out to us noting that they have addressed the reported concerns. However, the introduction of such an app is essential to work with and complement the manual contact tracing in India. According to the information already available, healthcare workers are working along with NGOs to manually trace the spread of infection.

Coronavirus tracker, Aarogya Setu feature

However, the ease of the spread of infection, the seriousness of coronavirus and other concerns have made it extremely difficult. These other concerns include fake news on social media and WhatsApp that makes community users paranoid. We have already seen health care workers facing the brunt of consequences behind such news. Beyond this, digital tracing can help decrease the risk and danger associated with the manual tracing of coronavirus spread. Smartphone use is not as widespread in India, however, the recent surge in smartphone users will help cover more ground.

How does contact tracing work?

Taking a look at the information provided by Google and Apple, the upcoming OS-level contact tracing will rely on Bluetooth. This is because Bluetooth is the only technology that can offer a more accurate estimate of being in the vicinity with a patient. Bluetooth can provide an accurate estimate with its less than 30-feet range than Wi-Fi with its 100-200 feet range. The new, proposed system from Apple and Google will assign a temporary ID number to a smartphone. Once the smartphone is around other devices, it will exchange this ID number with those devices. Each smartphone will collect all these ID numbers locally.

Coronavirus, feature image, PM Cares, covid 19, google, oura

Once, a smartphone user is diagnosed with coronavirus, the user can consent to send an alert to potential contacts. The smartphone will use all the ID numbers that it had stored locally to help the medical professionals. However, there are some privacy concerns regarding this technology.

Privacy concerns and attempts at addressing them

Several users, experts, and even institutions have already highlighted the associated privacy concerns with this technology. Governments and private companies can use this technology to create an absolute digital surveillance system, crushing personal privacy. However, Google and Apple revealed that this system does not associate the smartphone ID with the user. To introduce a second measure, this system will also periodically change the temporary ID to ensure that the location or device ID can’t be tied to a user.

Beyond the periodic change, the user has to consent to share the data stored on their smartphone after they have tested positive. The companies also noted that governments can’t force citizens to use this system. However, the mere presence of such a system will make it much easier. Both companies are also working on an API for third-party developers. This will ensure that all current contact tracing apps can work more reliably and seamlessly.

Some reports have already talked about potential malicious use of such a system. This system is not completely anonymous and it can lead to false positives or negatives. Several independent developers are currently working on such decentralized contact tracing systems and institutions such as MIT, and IIT have already developed such systems.

Previous uses of contact tracing

coronavirus healtcare professionals doctors

As noted above, such a system has long been used in health care. WHO used this to combat the 2013 Ebola outbreak along with contact identification, listing, and regular follow-up. It also shared a 36-page report detailing the use of contact tracing to ensure that Ebola does not spread. Also, countries such as Taiwan have already worked on creating such a system to combat SARS as mentioned above. The system is not perfect but it has showcased success in the past. It does come with inherent privacy risks. However, we are currently in uncharted territory and healthcare professionals need as much help as they can get to fight coronavirus.

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  • Published Date: April 20, 2020 9:56 AM IST