As lockdown begins to lift in the U.S. and parts of Europe, there’s fear that other countries have yet to really experience the full force of this year’s coronavirus pandemic. But even this many months into the global crisis, the best route forward is still unknown.
Debates are sparking all over the world about the ethics of quarantine and the search for a vaccine, while the general public sits at home hoping for answers.
And there’s one potential solution we’re all pinning our hopes on: contact tracing.
But does it — and will it — work?
Each COVID-19 contact tracing app works a little differently, though the underlying principles are essentially the same. The app will ask you if you have or have had COVID-19, which will mark you as a carrier or non-carrier.
Then, using some sort of broadcasting method (typically Bluetooth), the app will automatically detect when you are near other people who also have the app. Once another user is detected, the app will automatically check if you, or they, are carriers, and notify any non-carrying individuals that they have been within range of a carrier.
It sounds like the plot of a sci-fi blockbuster movie, true.
But if it works, contact tracing will remove the need for strict physical distancing — putting the onus on responsible movement and shared information.
Contact tracing will also help decision-makers better understand where infections are taking place, triggering minimization efforts in these hotspots. This may mean ramping up symptom awareness campaigns, or even closing down high-risk work and public spaces again.
So far, contact tracing has shown some potential. In China, where the virus first began, contact tracing reportedly helped the country regain control over the spread. Australia is also using contact tracing, as is South Korea — a country recognized for its efficient COVID-19 response.
As for the rest of the world, we’re still waiting.
The Apple-Google partnership is expected to roll out in the U.S., and in other countries where Apple and Google devices are in widespread use. For North America and Europe, however, there’s a big obstacle to overcome: privacy.
Ensuring that these apps protect user data — while, of course, still being effective — is a key concern.
Although contact tracing could potentially be the answer to subduing coronavirus, it requires technology that is a little too close to an Orwellian future for most of the public to get behind.
To mitigate these concerns, app developers will have to:
However, convincing the public that these measures will be taken is nearly as difficult as building the apps in the first place, which could reduce their effectiveness.
The success of contact tracing depends on its implementation. If too few people volunteer to take part, the data will be too thin, and we may well see a second wave.
To put it in numbers: 75% of a country's population needs to participate for contact tracing to be truly effective. However, many countries are struggling to get even 20% of their population on board — let alone 75%.
Additionally, if contact tracing systems are only going to collect a bare minimum of data, the results gathered could potentially be skewed in unreliable ways.
For example, a healthcare worker is bound to have a higher amount of pings on their app than someone just going to the grocery store. Since the apps aren't going to collect personal information, however, separating the data gathered from healthcare workers and laypeople might not be possible, which could paint an inaccurate picture of how many people are being exposed to the virus.
In other words, the more anonymous the data, the less accurate and usable the results will be.
It's unclear for now if contact tracing will be effective enough to combat COVID-19 in any meaningful way. In a vacuum, the concept is solid: understanding where, how, and to whom the virus is spreading would allow governments to take preventive measures to significantly reduce the spread.
Unfortunately, there are currently too many variables in the way. Bluetooth itself isn't the most reliable tech available, as it doesn't provide accurate distance information and is prone to creating false positives. Combine this with a lack of public participation and skewed data due to anonymity, and the efforts of these apps quickly become negligible at best.
Of course, this doesn't mean that contact tracing should be abandoned.
Rather, it's important to remember that this is the first time any technology like this has ever been attempted — and this is the first pandemic of its kind in modern history. From this perspective, you could say today’s contact tracing apps are essentially beta tests for a new technology that, in a few months, might be considerably more effective.
It's just a matter of time before contact tracing reaches maturity. Until then, hold tight, stay safe, and take care of yourself.