Topline

New Zealand will test an app that uses smartwatch data to catch Covid-19 days before a diagnosis, health officials announced Thursday, making New Zealand the first government to launch a pilot with the technology.

Key Facts

Up to 500 border workers voluntarily participate in the month-long pilot using elarm, an app created by New Zealand-based AI company Datamine that claims it can catch Covid-19 two or three days before the onset of symptoms, Datamine CEO Paul O’Connor told Forbes, with 83% accuracy.

The app collects heart rate, respiration rate and body temperature data from Fitbits, Apple Watches and other wearables, and then uses artificial intelligence to pick up slight changes in those metrics that may indicate a person is sick.

Border workers were chosen for the pilot because New Zealand has practically eliminated community spread within the country, making frontline staff who interact with travelers more vulnerable than the rest of the population

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern wants all border workers to get vaccinated by the end of April—especially after two cases were linked this month to an unvaccinated border worker—but even after that, the ministry of health sees elarm as “another layer of protection” against new variants and the fact that vaccines are not 100% effective, O’Connor said.

Crucial Quote

“If the elarm app lives up to its potential, it might provide early notification to our critical border workforce if they’re becoming unwell. That means they can take appropriate action such as self-isolating and being tested for COVID-19,” Shayne Hunter, deputy director-general of data and digital at New Zealand’s Ministry of Health said in a statement. “Even though our border workers are vaccinated, the reality is that some people will still feel unsure about the increased risk of exposure to COVID-19 from working on the border.”

Key Background

Before the pandemic, researchers had only just begun to study how smartwatch data could be used to catch illnesses like Lyme disease. But Covid-19 sparked new interest in the subject. Early studies from Stanford University, Mount Sinai Medical School and Scripps Research Translational Institute have all found that smartwatch data can be used for early Covid-19 detection. A small study from UC San Francisco and UC San Diego found that a smart ring from Finnish health tech startup Oura “may foreshadow COVID-19” by continuously monitoring a person’s temperature. Stanford University Medical School has its own app for early Covid-19 detection, which will be used in a 1,000-person study on student athletes later this year. Still, the technology is still somewhat nascent, as apps like elarm aren’t widely used in the U.S. and aren’t part of the government’s strategy to contain the virus.

What To Watch For

Michael Snyder, chair of Stanford Medical School’s department of genetics, told Forbes he hopes the research into early Covid-19 detection with smartwatch data will set a foundation for the technology to be used to monitor a wide range of illnesses after the pandemic. “I’d like to see a world where everyone is running around with dashboards, which is our iPhone, that basically tells you your health on some level,” he said, adding that the technology could be particularly useful in poorer areas of the world with scarce access to healthcare. It will likely take a “cultural shift,” he said, for people to feel comfortable having their health data being tracked.

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