COVID-19 contact tracing
  1. What is Contact Tracing?
  2. How can technology bolster Contact Tracing efforts?
  3. Challenges associated with Contact Tracing

The spread of coronavirus around the world has been rapid. In just over a few months, it has extended its reach to virtually all corners of the globe, while multiplying its infection rates inside communities. While it has a low fatality rate, it is the pace at which it spreads that has made it a formidable issue for global health systems to tackle. 

As of writing this, vaccines are currently being developed in parallel and human trials are about to start. Some estimates have pegged the development of a vaccine to 12 months, there are still steps that can be taken to curtail the spread of the virus to reduce its impact on our lives, and to ameliorate the burden on healthcare infrastructure. 

One of those methods with a high impact on the spread is Contact Tracing. 

What is Contact Tracing?

Contact Tracing is an important tool to slow down and stagger the spread of any epidemic or pandemic. It is the process of identifying people who may have come into contact with an infected person, and then amassing further information about the people who’ve been exposed to them. 

This is the standard operating procedure for Contact Tracing: 

  • Trace the people who’ve been exposed to the method of transmission of an infection
  • Testing to check if they’ve been infected
  • Treat them if they’re infected 
  • Repeat Step 1 for their contacts 

The primary goal is to curtail the spread of infection in a vulnerable population, and it can be broken down like this:

  • It helps people be aware of their infection status by being alerted 
  • Offers diagnosis for a potentially vulnerable population 
  • Gain insights into the path of the spread of the disease to aid in further preventive measures. 
  • Allows the uninfected population to move around freely, provided the identified contacts have quarantined themselves. 

How can technology bolster Contact Tracing efforts

The core principle of contact tracing is to form a web of infected people, which boils down to quick and effective communication. Since smartphones have become a common accessory, a mobile app would be the best method of communication for people to self-report and build a cache of reliable information. While technology alone is not sufficient for a successful contact tracing campaign, it still is a very efficacious tool in the fight against any contagious disease. 

In India, the government has released the Aarogya Setu app to aid contract tracing, and globally Google and Apple have collaborated to come up with a contact tracing app – probably the only time they’ve not tried to compete with each other. 

In addition to this, companies such as SQREEM from Singapore have released an AI platform Channel SQREEM, which is a real-time contact tracing and communication system. The SQREEM COVID Tracing platform is a proximity locator with built-in privacy features and doesn’t need an app. It uses AI and machine learning models to predict how many other people might have had considerable contact with an infected patient in a period of time. The platform also includes behavioural data capabilities and pattern analysis by melding location and other digital activity into profiles, which helps identify potential new infection clusters. 

Challenges associated with Contact Tracing

As we’ve stated before, an app is one of the most effective tools for contact tracing. However, this has led each country, company and even states to develop their own apps, with minimal communication between the apps. This defeats the purpose of having a global communication platform, and the public and private sectors need to work together for better healthcare outcomes. 

The other issue is privacy – not many are comfortable with their personal information floating about in servers, even after they’ve been anonymised. There’s also some concern about how all this collected information would be used, most of which have been overridden for the sake of a disease containment strategy.

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Contact Tracing is only one aspect of a holistic approach to eradicating this virus, and would still need to be supported by prudent social distancing and self-quarantine efforts.

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