UK turns to mobile apps to help curb coronavirus spread

As COVID-19-related deaths in the UK continue to rise, the NHS is turning to mobile applications for symptom tracking and contract tracing.

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Gerd Altmann (CC0)

UK health authorities are turning to mobile applications to help try and slow the spread of COVID-19 across Britain.

According to an April 6 research report by Gartner  the ongoing pandemic is pushing global healthcare systems beyond their limits, prompting “the need to rapidly develop new capabilities such as contact tracing and mass temperature screening….”

Of the more than 148,000 global deaths so far, more than 14,000 have been reported in the UK. However, whilst the UK government has followed World Health Organisation advice around instigating a country-wide lockdown and introducing social distancing measures, it has faced criticism around the lack of available testing for both front line workers and the public.

Launched in late March, the COVID-19 Symptom Tracker App was developed by King’s College London (KCL), alongside Guys & St Thomas' hospitals and London and Boston-based startup ZOE, a nutritional science company co-founded by KCL Professor of Genetic Epidemiology, Tim Spector.

ZOE was originally founded to combine data from Spector’s research into twins with machine learning to develop a consumer product that can predict a person’s response to what they eat. As  the coronavirus pandemic spread, Spector decided to use ZOE to track the symptoms of volunteers in his studies, then opted to roll the app out to the entire UK population.

The application was released on March 24 and within a day had been downloaded more than a million times. Users who choose to input data into the app are asked to provide information that includes age, sex at birth, height, weight, postcode of residence, pre-existing health conditions, and habits such as smoking. Then, they’re asked daily to report any symptom that could be associated with COVID-19. The data is shared with researchers at King’s College and at the Guys and St Thomas' Hospitals, to get a better sense of how the pandemic is spreading through the UK.

Data is key to stopping virus transmission

As the virus continues to spread globally, Mike Jones, vice president, team manager and research director for healthcare at Gartner, said collecting data at a population level is critical to help manage the epidemic nationally and support government efforts to supply appropriate resources geographically.

He said that while the government has been doing its best with the information it has already, getting data on an individual level is vital for strengthening any scientific modelling.

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