The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted unprecedented action worldwide in combating its pervasive spread. While innovative pharmaceutical companies and civil society work together to expedite a safe and effective vaccine, government and medical organizations look to alternative measures to track, contain, and mitigate virus spread.
Recently, a deluge of apps to track individuals exposed to or infected with COVID-19 has flooded the global marketplace. Many governments are financing these “exposure notification” apps to help flatten the curve and expedite a return to normalcy; however, these apps have raised some concerns regarding their scope and efficacy. How will people use them? Where will the data be stored and collected? Do they even work? Are there privacy concerns?
Ontario recently launched “COVID Alert,” produced in partnership with Shopify and Blackberry, as Canada’s first step in attempting to rollout a nationally available and voluntary app to track the virus’ spread. Using Bluetooth technology, it exchanges random codes with other phones and notifies the user if they’ve been near a COVID positive person in the past two weeks. The data is stored locally, and the app supports data deletion, transparency. It cannot access your personal information, assuaging fears about privacy breaches while providing the information required to curb infections.
Many apps use Bluetooth or a Google/Apple API to contact trace, but others, such as the one used in China, use location tracing via cell towers or GPS to provide the system with the user’s location, identity, and even their personal financial history (to track those who violate quarantine), which raises significant privacy issues and the spectre of the “surveillance state.” In the US, COVID tracking apps have appeared in a handful of states, although this initiative has mostly failed due to a lack of coordinated government policies and federal support.
The best apps have a high level of data penetration while supporting a complete degree of transparency, with users having the ability to opt-out of specific data access within the software. They also have reliable platforms for data management. New Zealand’s COVID tracer app incorporates these features and uses a check-in feature with Bluetooth and public QR codes to track infections.
The efficacy of contact tracing apps can be hindered by low adoption and integration, mainly as their effectiveness is so clearly tied to the number of people participating. Voluntary downloads, user-friendliness and app complexity, will change how people interact with the app, regardless of its robust data capabilities. Furthermore, individual preferences and concerns about data privacy see some people reluctant to share personal information. In the absence of a vaccine, a tracing app serves as a form of behaviour modification to contain COVID spread. Still, it requires continuing public support and participation and consistent rules around what factors should trigger an alert. Critical criteria, such as the distance, what viral load (?), the period of exposure to an infected person before a user is flagged for COVID exposure, can complicate an app’s function, notably where threshold values might differ with another app or conflict with communication from public health. Indeed, experts currently have no consensus on what these parameters should be. Nonetheless, tracking apps can mitigate virus spread, as seen from experience in South Korea and Singapore.