Wearables to join Covid-19 offensive

Health trackers and smartwatches help detect the virus before symptoms appear

The major drawbacks of the studies is that most of them require users to own their wearable devices.

The effectiveness of wearables as Covid-19 detectors is a milestone for several studies that show promising results, Bloomberg reported. Monica Valencia, whose family member died of Covid-19 amid an extremely short illness, was among 400 employees of the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System outfitted with wearable Fitbit fitness devices as a part of a study tracking early signs of Covid-19 launched in March by the Scripps Research Translational Institute in San Diego.

The devices monitor heart rate, sleep patterns, and physical activity levels. If they can pick up even subtle physiological changes that herald infection, they could urge users to get tested even before symptoms appear. Bringing such tech-based Covid-19 detection to an entire community could spot outbreaks earlier, alert individuals who may stay asymptomatic but contagious, and help local officials increase the effectiveness of their testing and tracing protocols. In a pandemic that has so far stubbornly resisted high-tech countermeasures, mass deployment of health trackers could be a powerful new public health weapon.

The major drawbacks of the studies is that most of them require users to own their wearable devices, which sell for anywhere from $50 to $400 - a big price gap in a pandemic where low-income frontline workers are among the most vulnerable. Other issues also could limit the effectiveness of this technology. As with tech-powered contact tracing efforts, some people are concerned with privacy matters and government access to personal health information - the same surveillance fears that also haunt “smart city” programs that harvest data from residents. Researchers must both face those challenges and confront one additional barrier: a long legacy of mistrust between medical institutions and low-income communities.

The Scripps study, called DETECT, monitors the biometrics of 35,000 participants through an app that pulls data from Fitbits, Apple Watches, and other wearable devices. Lead researcher Jennifer Radin, an epidemiologist at Scripps, has compared day-to-day changes over baseline health levels and found signs that the sensor data can help detect Covid-19 even before symptoms appear better than self-reported symptoms alone.

The DETECT study is just one of several projects employing wearables as Covid-19 detectors. Fitbit's own research programme, which encompasses 100,000 people in the US and Canada, is catching signs of the disease before symptoms show. So is a 5,000-person study led by Michael Snyder, a professor of genetics at Stanford University. Snyder’s team is now building an algorithm that can scan device data at scale and alert wearers to get tested and self-isolate when signs of infection show. In a sub-analysis of 31 participants who tested positive for Covid-19, Snyder found that 82% had data on their devices that indicated infection - such as an elevated heart rate - at or before the time symptoms appeared.

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