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Oxford Uni: New "app" could trace COVID-19 carriers

Scientists say creating an app that can trace people who have been exposed to coronavirus is 'feasible.'

Their research has shown technology like this could be implemented fast and may be able to give instant, wide-ranging results in attempts to slow the spread of covid-19.

The Oxford Uni researchers argue that public health officials are not tracing people effectively, as the new illness is spreading too rapidly – and in many cases, is being transmitted before symptoms show.

Professor Christophe Fraser is from the Uni’s Big Data Institute at the Nuffield Department of Medicine.

He said: “Coronavirus is unlike previous epidemics and requires multiple inter-dependent containment strategies. 

“So we need a fast and effective mobile app for alerting people who have been exposed.

“Our mathematical modelling suggests that traditional public health contact tracing methods are too slow to keep up with this virus.”

How would this app work?

Professor Fraser says it’s “very simple” – in the event a person is diagnosed with coronavirus, the app messages all the people with whom they’ve been in contact.

They will then be advised to self-isolate.

But Dr David Bonsall, a researcher at Oxford’s Nuffield Department of Medicine and clinician at Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital, says it’s no good it being developed by an independent company.

In his opinion, the app must go national.

He added: “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.

“Our findings confirm that not everybody has to use the mobile app for it to work. 

“If with the help of the app the majority of individuals self-isolate on showing symptoms, and the majority of their contacts can be traced, we stand a chance of stopping the epidemic.”

Is it ethical?

One could argue an app such as this may be an invasion of people’s privacy.

We may not know who we sat next to on the bus – but have we the right to go finding out?

Professor Michael Parker directs the Wellcome Centre for Ethics & Humanities and Ethox Centre at the university.

He says: “The use of any coronavirus mobile application requires high ethical standards throughout the intervention.

“[These include]:

·         guaranteeing equal access and treatment

·         addressing privacy and data usage concerns

·         adopting a transparent and auditable algorithm

·         considering digital deployment strategies to support specific groups, such as health care workers, the elderly and the young

·         proceeding on the basis of individual consent.”

The Oxford University team also suggest the mobile app should be used alongside social distancing, to reduce close contact with others.

They also recommend we continue to stick to our simple safety steps, such as handwashing thoroughly, and catching sneezes in a tissue.  

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