Could a symptom tracker app prevent future COVID-19 outbreaks?

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The rapid spread of COVID-19 has demonstrated the need for rapid, real-time mass epidemiological data. To this end, the Coronavirus Pandemic Epidemiology (COPE) Consortium, an international team made up of UK and US scientists specializing in big data and epidemiology, has launched a COVID-19 symptom tracker app. Their initial results have been published in Science.

Since its launch in late March, over 3 million individuals have used the app to log their daily symptoms, providing invaluable information and data to help doctors, scientists and politicians lead the fight against COVID-19.

“The app collects daily information from individuals in the community about whether they feel well, and if not, their specific symptoms and if they have been tested for COVID-19,” explained senior author Andrew Chan (Massachusetts General Hospital, MA, USA).

Utilizing data provided by users, the app can provide insights into where the COVID-19 hotspots are and give details of any newly suspected symptoms. This information can then be used in developing guidelines to cope with the virus and identifying regions that require additional support.

“This work has led to the development of accurate models of COVID-19 infection rates in the absence of sufficient population testing,” commented Chan. “For example, the UK government has acted upon these estimates by providing advanced notice to local health authorities about when to expect a surge of cases.”

For example, by analyzing the data provided, the researchers were able to produce a COVID-19 prediction model, which they applied to a subset of users from South Wales and successfully predicted two spikes in confirmed COVID-19 cases.

Despite limitations of the app, such as data samples not being representative of the whole population, the data gathered so far suggests the app could be a powerful tool for gathering important, real time data. Further, it could provide the researchers with the opportunity to investigate the long term outcomes of COVID-19.

To maximize the full potential of the app, the team is encouraging everyone, including those who feel well, to download it and participate in the initiative. They hope that with enough contributions from the public, the app could be successful in not only curbing the current pandemic but also preventing future ones.

Sources: Drew DA, Nguyen LH, Steves CJ et al. Rapid implementation of mobile technology for real-time epidemiology of COVID-19. Science doi:10.1126/science.abc0473 (2020) (E-pub ahead of print); www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2020-05/aaft-cst050520.phpwww.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2020-05/aaft-cst050520.php

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