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Contact tracing

What would it take to reopen countries during the COVID-19 global pandemic?

The answer is Contact Tracing. Contract Tracing means to identify all people who carry the disease, to then monitor everyone they have been in contact with. This approach is one of the measures that need to go hand in hand with Social Distancing and self quarantine to effectively overcome this crisis.

But how does this work in practice?

Contact Tracing is something most countries are currently already doing - but all in analogic. This means that people are being tracked physically and contacted one-by-one by medical personnel to warn them to self quarantine or to get tested. This process, however, is highly inefficient, as it is very time consuming and requires a lot of human workforce.

Most recent analyses highlight that the interview with the infected person alone might take up to 12 hours - and only then the tracking begins. As you can see, this process is rather slow and we are losing valuable time - time that might be necessary to warn people before they infect even more.

Another restraining factor to this system is the costs: The people who track and trace infection chains need to be paid, require training and management.

Due to these two major restraints of human contract tracing in terms of financial and time management, attempts are being made all over the world to find IT solutions for automated Contact Tracing.

How can contact tracing help us end (or prevent) the lockdown?

Contract Tracing is necessary to allow people to go back to their normal lives - return to their workplaces, reopen shops, childcare facilities and sports grounds. Little is known about the disease just yet, but research suggests that survivors of the disease are - at least for some time - immune against a second infection. The first solution that comes to mind when thinking about how to reopen entire countries is therefore to only allow people to return to their normal lives who have an immunity to COVID-19. These people cannot get sick again - but, more importantly, they cannot spread the virus any further.

This solution, however, has two major flaws: First of all, it would require everyone to carry a proof of antibodies or medical fitness at all times. A logistic and privacy nightmare that would create a two-class society and incentivize people to get infected to build up immunity. Secondly, the number of people who survived the disease to date is too low to restart countries’ economies.

With Contract Tracing, however, we can allow a lot more people to return to their normal lives, while monitoring them. And to do this effectively, we need technology. The first advantage of tracing apps is that they would be instantaneous: You opt into its use, which would mean “Please tell me if I have been in close contact with anyone who also opted in and tested positive for this virus”. If positive, the app would alert you, responding “Yes, you came into close contact with an infected person; you should now self-isolate”.

The goal of such apps is to allow people to break the infection chain by self-isolating before they show any symptoms. The use of apps would not only reduce the 12 hours interview time, but also the time it takes to contact everyone who might have been infected.

So could technology actually solve the COVID-19 emergency? And how can we create an effective tool?

Recently, Apple and Google joined forces to find a solution to contact tracing on a never-before seen scale. With this initiative, 3 billion smartphones with a contact tracing app can become tools of medical surveillance. The two big players of the tech industry are planning to give the health department access to their Bluetooth systems on Android and iOS phones; and people will be given the option to opt into the use of the app.

Once you opt in, your phone will be collecting anonymised information within Bluetooth range. The use of Bluetooth is particularly effective, because its range is very limited, thus only collecting data of people you were in close proximity with.

Once a person tests positive, they insert this information in the app and everyone who has been in close proximity to them automatically receives a notification, recommending to self-isolate.

Apple and Google can set the bluetooth range of their phones to a range that could be reasonably accurate when telling someone “You have been exposed”.

A first version might be ready for use soon. Smartphone users will receive a popup notification asking “Do you want to participate in contact tracing?” and requiring explicit permission to be activated. If you do not opt in by clicking “Yes”, you will not be included in the contact tracing - your data will not be collected and you will not be notified of any contacts to infected people.

What are the main concerns? Are there any security or privacy issues?

Some people express their concerns about tracing apps, so we collected the main concerns for you.
-Tracing apps only work if the majority of people use them - otherwise, they might create a false sense of security.
-Private data is being collected by large corporations. It is important to note, however, that the collected data is anonymized, making it close to impossible to draw conclusions about individual people, as data would need to be decoded one-by-one to do so. Apple and Google declared that they will turn off the location tracking data option once the emergency will be over, and you will have the chance to opt out of its use at any point.
-By warning others of your positive test result, you will give up some of your medical privacy.

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