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Tracking COVID-19

Updated: May 6, 2020

"Necessity is the mother of invention". Opportunities to learn more about the spread of SARS-CoV-2 have been missed.  This was to be expected in the ensuing chaos of quarantines, lockdowns and bailouts.  In the UK, anyone with a new dry, continuous cough or a high temperature is expected to self-isolate for 7 days, and the rest of their household for 14 days.  People should only call 111 (the NHS medical helpline) if they can't cope.

Whilst this ensures that limited medical attention and resources are focused on those that need them most, this restriction meant that a great opportunity to learn more about the spread of SARS-CoV-2 and the extent of mild symptoms was lost. Any data is scattered in social media, search histories and HR helplines.  If only there had been an app where individuals could log that they were experiencing symptoms and were about to self-isolate.

But the digital world is catching up. COVID Symptom Tracker, developed by a research consortium involving  King's College London, Guys and St Thomas’ Hospitals  and the health data company ZOE is asking individuals to self-report daily whether unwell or not.  Geolocation and demographic data will enable researchers to identify high risk areas and better understand how fast the virus is spreading. Already 200,000 have signed up this morning.  

Across the pond in the US, a consortium of researchers  at MIT, Harvard, The Mayo Clinic, TripleBlind, EyeNetra, Ernst & Young and Link Ventures have developed Private Kit: Safe Paths that enables those who have tested positive to share redacted location histories, and hence provide automatic alerts to other users when they came in close proximity.  That said, not all that glistens is gold.  Google and Apple have been busy taking down coronavirus tracking apps that could be misleading or unsound.  The new policy is only to allow those that have been approved by a national governemnt or a medical institution.

Going forward, it is to be hoped that less opportunities are missed to gather data on the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 until such time as we have reliable randomised serological testing in the population.

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