Coronavirus sleuths kick off campaign for digital tracing of COVID-19 contacts

Alan Boyle
The Seattle-based NextTrace campaign is similar to the contact-tracing model used in Singapore for the government-led, Bluetooth-based TraceTogether campaign. (TraceTogether / Illustration)

The researchers who helped track down the origins of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. are now launching an effort to help contain it, using location data from patients’ mobile devices.

“This system would use cell phone location and proximity data to detect possible exposure events while ensuring that privacy is preserved and data is secure,” Trevor Bedford, an epidemiologist at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, wrote Tuesday in a Twitter thread about NextTrace.

Weeks ago, Bedford and his colleagues at the Seattle Flu Study and NextStrain analyzed the genetic fingerprints of the coronavirus to determine that it had been spreading undetected for weeks, rapidly infecting hundreds in the Seattle area.

Those findings struck the spark for last week’s launch of the Seattle Coronavirus Assessment Network, or SCAN, an ambitious effort to map the virus’ spread through intensive at-home testing.

NextTrace follows through on another one of the steps that Bedford outlined last month as part of an “Apollo Program” for containing the coronavirus outbreak. It’s similar to other app-based schemes for contact tracing, including Singapore’s TraceTogether app, the Pan-European Privacy Preserving Proximity Tracing initiative in Europe, California-based COVID Watch and Massachusetts-based Safe Paths.

Bedford said NextTrace’s organizers plan to collaborate with those projects as well as other contact-tracing campaigns that arise.

Contact tracing is a classic technique in the response to a disease outbreak: It involves asking patients who they’ve been in recent contact with, finding those people, testing them for presence of the pathogen, and isolating and treating them as appropriate. The aim is to stop a cluster of infection from spreading, just as firefighters contain a wildfire.

COVID-19 poses challenges for contact tracing, particularly in the United States. Tests for the coronavirus-caused disease haven’t been widely available in the U.S., and each day the epidemic spreads wider. It typically takes thousands of hours of phone interviews and in-person follow-ups to track down contacts and take action.

“Because of this, contact tracing is typically only conducted in the early ‘containment’ phase of an epidemic when there are few enough cases that public health staff can keep up,” Bedford wrote.

Bedford and his colleagues say it’s too late to use the traditional phone-based approach to contact tracing. Instead, they plan to set up a system that would let labs share anonymized data about COVID-19 test results to a decentralized network.

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If a patient is confirmed as having COVID-19, they can choose to register their case to an online platform. The platform would then consult the anonymized records and send out warnings to other people who might have been exposed to the virus, based on registrants’ location data.

“The app / online platform would essentially conduct a coarse version of what epidemiologists do with interviews; it would build a contact history for the registered case, listing out contact events with other individuals that could potentially have resulted in transmission,” Bedford wrote.

The anonymized data from testing, combined with the readings from the proximity app, would also help public health officials identify geographic hotspots that require more concentrated containment measures. If the strategy works, that could reassure officials and the general public as wider-scale lockdowns are relaxed.

Bedford acknowledged that the NextTrace campaign is just getting started. The first steps will be to develop a data platform for a single community, fine-tune the system and evaluate its effectiveness in guiding individual decisions as well as community-wide policies.

Once the strategy is ready for prime time, most likely in collaboration with other digital contact-tracing initiatives, it can be scaled up for broader use. NextTrace’s organizers are soliciting assistance to get the project in gear.

“Time to get to work!” Bedford wrote.

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