Proximity Tech to fight COVID 19

Mathias Haussmann By Mathias Haussmann

We have technology that can speed up contact tracing and help during the coronavirus pandemic!

Traditional epidemiological tracing is very labour intensive, investigative and can miss individuals, as it appears to have happened with COVID-19 in Seattle on Jan 19th 2020. 60 individuals around patient 0 were put into quarantine – patient 1, however, remained undiscovered. Traceability is key to fighting epidemics and pandemics.

Unlike location technologies such as GPS, p2pkit measures how far from each other (from cm..m) when, how often and for how long a contact existed.

With reasonable means, it is possible to trace back up to a maximum of 200 – 300 cases of infection with so-called tracers, people who try to follow the course of the disease by interviewing the sick and establishing contact with possible contacts. The aim here is to isolate the potential carriers of the disease.

But also in the later stage of the pandemic (i.e. where it’s less about isolating individuals instead protecting the vulnerable population), tracing and testing remains vital! The World Health Organization issued a stern warning on the matter on March 14th 2020, as case numbers spiked. “You can’t fight a virus if you don’t know where it is,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus “That means robust surveillance to find, isolate, test and treat every case, to break the chains of transmission.”

The so-called “proximity technologies” for smartphones can address both issues and can fight COVID 19. These are based on Bluetooth; Wifi and or ultrasonic sound and have existed for several years. Unlike GPS based location technology, proximity tech does not measure where a handset (i.e. person) is. It measures how much distance (from cm…m) between two or more person and when, how often and for how long this contact existed. One such proximity solution is from Uepaa AG in Zurich – an ETH spin-off. It has been used in multiple commercial apps, such as Xing with up to 15 Million monthly active users.

But more importantly, it’s in use by the Operation Outbreak (O2) project, a simulation platform for infectious disease education, preparation, and data generation. O2 was created by Todd Brown, a civics teacher at Sarasota Military Academy (SMA), Andres Colubri, a computational scientist at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and Pardis C. Sabeti, Professor at Harvard University and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, at the Broad Institute, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The O2 app relies on p2pkit to realistically simulate a pandemic spreading through the participants’ phones over Bluetooth. The app was piloted at SMA between 2018 and 2019, and it’s currently being scaled up for availability at any school in the US and around the world. On February 21 2020, the app was successfully used at the Florida Undergrad Research Conference to measure epidemic spreading at a real conference, involving nearly 300 participants.

Just imaging – if the owner of a handset thinks he or she has been infected, they can follow regular procedures, and a test should be done as soon as possible. If the result is COVID positive, they just need to open the app and an epidemic tracing over the last 24, 48 or multiple days can be performed at the click of a button. This means that all interactions between this patient and other persons are placed on a timeline and parameterised according to COVID criteria (duration, distance, frequency). This way, all persons can be identified who might have been infected during the incubation period. As this data is already in an app, they can be informed immediately and asked to go into self-quarantine and then perform a test for COVID. Already back in 2017, engineers of Uepaa AG conducted epidemic charting with real-life data of a Proximity-nightlife App in Zürich. The following video gives an impression of how this epidemic chart analytics work:

Extensive use of contact tracing technology requires special attention to privacy concerns. The app that China has launched so people can check their risk of catching the coronavirus and the use of mobile alerts in South Korea are reminders of the implications that these systems can have with regards to privacy. Mathias Haussmann, Founder and CEO of Uepaa AG comments. “Yes that’s true – but in times where President Trump declares a national emergency in the latest effort to combat coronavirus – in times were European countries ask people to stay at home and close Schengen transit – in these times the data access have to be weighed carefully against data privacy concerns. Access to the last 24h, 48h, or total incubation period after a positive test can be regarded as less important.”

Implementing proximity technology is a breeze – developing a proper standalone app requires only a few days. The database, data storage and analytics need to be handled by a trusted data centre service. Furthermore, the relevant government departments need to encourage citizens to download and use the app. Either a central point of deployment is set up with access to the cloud database and analysis tools (i.e. with staff who have clearance) …or the system runs fully autonomous in a closed peer to peer crowd alerting tool. That means with no external access from government departments. Both options are possible, but either way, technical and legal hurdles can be mastered, and the use of proximity tech could break the peak of the pandemic and enable faster response.

We are open and fully prepared to help and support any government effort to make full use of proximity technology in their apps and to fight against COVID-19!

Mathias Haussmann, CEO & Founder of Uepaa AG