COVID Detection Apps: What’s in Store for Us?

July 16, 2020

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, a variety of mobile applications development to contain the virus by enabling users to report their symptoms and facilitate disease traceability. These have been further enhanced in countries such as South Korea, where the apps are enabling authorities to alert citizens when they come in direct contact with an infected person. App-based contact tracing has become essential due to the way this virus spreads, where an infected person can go on without developing any symptoms for days; whereby investigating and confirming a positive case using traditional contact tracing can take several more days. As ‘contact tracing’ requires interviewing the infected person; tracking down who they have come in contact with in the recent past and then making those people self-isolate, before they spread the disease further. This has made the traditional method quite redundant, as it is a laborious and an extremely slow process. Therefore, a rapid increase in technological solutions to combat this pandemic has been on the rise. With the help of smartphones, the process has been highly automated and more effective.


While some of the applications built are pervasive and invasive, other solutions are temporary and lightweight. For instance; China’s system, which is designed to extract every bit of information about the citizen, including their payment history, so that the authorities know if any quarantine rules have been broken. Similarly, while some are being produced locally by small time coders, others are being promoted on a global level. One example includes; systems by Apple and Google, that can be utilized by hundreds of millions of people immediately. Apple and Google released their long-awaited system that automatically notifies people if they were exposed to coronavirus. The organizations had declared their unprecedented collaboration to use their advanced technology, which heavily relies on Bluetooth to help contain the virus. 22 countries have already volunteered to use this software in order to build their own apps. Numerous administrations have been ineffective in rolling out their in-house phone apps to fight the spread of the virus. They have encountered many technical problems on smart phones. From Germany to the conditions of Alabama and South Carolina, public health agencies across the globe have been waiting for the Apple-Google model, while others have claimed that it will be of no use to the public health workers, as they won’t be able to access user data.


Evolution of Covid-19 detection apps


Starting with the most basic apps, these usually require individuals to input their personal information; regarding their location and demographics and likely exposure to the virus, or whether they have travelled to areas that were highly affected. Furthermore, it asks you if you have any common symptoms of infection including cough, fever, fatigue etc. Artificial intelligence then runs it past an algorithm that helps assess the risk and send the person a report based on that. It also alerts the nearest facility about the likelihood of a positive case coming their way.


The collective information aids rapid and accurate identification of geographic regions, where the virus is more widespread so that the healthcare facilities can plan resources better. Moreover, it also helps investigators to learn more about the virus. Where contact tracing has been a key component in the fight against COVID-19, the tracers have been empowered with sensitive details of infected people, including CCTV footage, transaction history and location data from mobile-phone carriers. But in places where these solutions do not meet the privacy expectations, Bluetooth tracing has proved to be helpful.


When a person using such a system receives a positive diagnosis, they can opt to submit their ID code to a central database. This enables the database to run a local scan to see whether there is a match. If there’s a match, you receive an alert on your phone. In more sophisticated systems, the phone periodically blasts out a piece of code, other phones in range receive and remember that code; thus creating a network of codes. This system is rendered very useful given how it helps collect information and enhance traceability without much effort.


A close contact detector introduced by the General Office of the State Council, the National Health Commission and China Electronics Technology Group Corporations (CETC); enables inquiry about the novel virus utilizing mobile apps such as WeChat, Alipay or QQ. After registration formalities, users need to enter their name and password to know whether they were in close contact with anyone infected. According to the commission, close contact refers to someone who has come in close distance, with no protection, with positive cases. These would include people who work closely together, share a living space or who have been in close contact with patients in a closed environment; as well as travelling companions.


Digital tracking enables identifying more contacts, in less time than you would with traditional methods. An app of sorts may not have much impact in a city where extensive community transmission has already disrupted work. But it is very impactful in areas where isolating potential cases can help. Moreover, with these apps, reduction in numbers is likely only if many people use them. Since a tracking app can’t possibly capture every source of infection, there is a risk of creating a false sense of security. If users don’t see a dot on the map, it doesn’t mean that there was no one who was infected in that area.


Many people have raised questions regarding how this data collection can impact their privacy, which remains a key issue. While some governments have not made app installation voluntary, in other places citizens are compelled to use them. There is no guarantee that the data will not be used by law enforcement and other agencies, post-coronavirus. There are, however, apps that allow users to delete their own data or give an option of automated deletion after a certain period of time.