Oxford University campaigns for pan-European Covid-tracking mobile app

News by Chandu Gopalakrishnan

Oxford researchers are working with European governments on the feasibility of a mobile app for instant contact tracing of possible Covid-19 patients

Medical researchers and bioethics experts at Oxford University are working with European governments on the feasibility of a mobile app for instant contact tracing of possible Covid-19 (Coronavirus) patients. If deployed effectively, the app could help contain the spread of coronavirus, said the researchers.

“The impetus to explore the method has come from within Oxford University. The goal is to share this evidence with European governments who can assess the feasibility of implementing this at a national level. We expect the governments to call on multiple partners within and outside the administrations to deliver this approach,” an Oxford University spokesperson told SC Media UK.

“Our analysis suggests that almost half of coronavirus transmissions occur in the very early phase of infection, before symptoms appear, so we need a fast and effective mobile app for alerting people who have been exposed. Our mathematical modeling suggests that traditional public health contact tracing methods are too slow to keep up with this virus,” Professor Christophe Fraser from Oxford University’s Big Data Institute, Nuffield Department of Medicine, said in the official announcement.

The app analyses and alerts the recent contacts of confirmed or suspected Covid-19 patients, advising them to isolate. Not everyone has to use the app for it to work, said Dr. David Bonsall, researcher at Oxford’s Nuffield Department of Medicine and clinician at Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital.

“If the majority of individuals alerted by the app self-isolate on showing symptoms, and the majority of their contacts can be traced, we stand a chance of stopping the epidemic. To work, this approach needs to be integrated into a national programme, not taken on by independent app developers. If we can securely deploy this technology, the more people that opt-in, the faster the epidemic will stop, and the more lives can be saved,” he said in the announcement.

While the UK government is lagging in its efforts to set up cyber and telephone alerts, countries such as China and Taiwan have successfully managed to integrate mobile technology in epidemic control, considerably reducing newly reported cases.

Israel has integrated the use of digital technology to locate and quarantine those who have been infected in its three-point plan to contain the disease.

“Today, we started using digital technology to locate people who have been in contact with those stricken by the Corona. We will inform these people that they must go into quarantine for 14 days,” prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Tuesday, 17 March. 

“These are expected to be large – even very large – numbers and we will announce this in the coming days. Going into quarantine will not be a recommendation but a requirement and we will enforce it without compromise. This is a critical step in slowing the spread of the epidemic.”

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