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Oxford University researchers explore feasibility of coronavirus tracing app

The team of medical research and bioethics experts say if such an app was rapidly and widely deployed it could significantly help to contain the spread of coronavirus.

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The mobile app could form part of an integrated coronavirus control strategy
The mobile app could form part of an integrated coronavirus control strategy

A team of medical research and bioethics experts at Oxford University are exploring the feasibility of a coronavirus mobile app for instant contact tracing.

 

The infectious disease experts reckon if such an app was rapidly and widely deployed it could significantly help to contain the spread of coronavirus.

 

Ethical considerations

 

The Oxford University researchers recommend that the mobile app should form part of an integrated coronavirus control strategy and has provided European governments, including the UK’s, with evidence to support its advancement. They also say it should be implemented with appropriate ethical considerations.

 

“The instant mobile app concept is very simple. If you are diagnosed with coronavirus, the people you’ve recently come into contact with will be messaged advising them to isolate,” said Professor Christophe Fraser from Oxford University’s Big Data Institute, Nuffield Department of Medicine.

 

“If this mobile app is developed and deployed rapidly, and enough people opt in to use such an approach, we can slow the spread of coronavirus and mitigate against devastating human, economic and social impacts.”

 

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

 

He continued: “Coronavirus is unlike previous epidemics and requires multiple inter-dependent containment strategies. 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 modelling suggests that traditional public health contact tracing methods are too slow to keep up with this virus.”

 

Combined with social distancing

 

The Oxford University team suggest the mobile app should be combined with social distancing measures to reduce close contacts.

 

The Big Data Institute is continuing to simulate performance of the application so it could be adjusted to include mobile app guided coronavirus testing, and/or provide targeted responses in areas with particularly high rates of transmission.

 

“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,” added Dr David Bonsall, researcher at Oxford’s Nuffield Department of Medicine and clinician at Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital.

 

Professor Michael Parker, director of the Wellcome Centre for Ethics & Humanities and Ethox Centre, in Oxford’s Nuffield Department of Population Health, said that the use of any coronavirus mobile application requires high ethical standards throughout the intervention, including: 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 healthcare workers, the elderly and the young; and, proceeding on the basis of individual consent."

 

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