Coronavirus: Doctors urge public to help track Covid-19 cases with tracing app

Al Hosn - named after Abu Dhabi's historic fortress - allows medical officials to determine who has been in contact with a Covid-19 carrier

epa08358805 Members of the medical team register samples of Covid19 at a drive-through testing centre in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, 12 April 2020. The United Arab Emirates set up 13 new drive-through Covid-19 testing centers capable of carrying an average of 500 tests per day in each center. The Ministry of Health in UAE said 648,195 tests of covid-19 coronavirus were conducted till 11 April 2020.  EPA/MAHMOUD KHALED  ATTENTION: This Image is part of a PHOTO SET
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Doctors tackling the country's Covid-19 outbreak urged the public to download an app that could help them trace undetected carriers.

Al Hosn uses bluetooth signals to track interactions between people who have the programme on their phones.

Senior health officials urged residents to install it on their phones to help tackle the rising number of cases, which crossed the 11,000 mark this week.

The authorities have sought to manually trace every person that could have been in contact with a patient before they were diagnosed, but that depends on an individual's memory - and honesty.

Dr Farida Al Hosani, spokeswoman for the country's health sector, said the system could only work with widespread public support.

It is very difficult to trace back who one was in contact with, especially in public places. This will enable individuals to learn more about their exposure to positive cases

“It is very difficult to trace back who one was in contact with, especially in public places,” she said.

“This will enable individuals to learn more about their health status and their exposure to positive cases.”

Covid tracing apps are being rolled out across the globe to simplify the process. Al Hosn is an adaptation of two existing apps called Stay Home and Trace Covid.

In Australia, more than 2.5 million people downloaded a similar app called Covidsafe. Al Hosn is available on Google Play here and the Apple Store here.

The app does not alert you or anyone else to a person who may have the virus, but allows the government to track you down, test you if necessary, and prevent you from passing it on.

Dr Al Hosani stressed that all of the data gathered would remain anonymous.

“Technology has enabled us to do contact tracing in a much better and more sophisticated way,” Dr Al Hosani said.

The app allows officials to track if you have been in contact with someone who is later diagnosed. The National

“We are still calling individuals to get additional information, but this robust system will enable us and different health authorities to conduct their role and provide live data on the disease.”

In early February, Minister of Health Abdulrahman Al Owais said about 150 people were tested for each of the then seven confirmed patients, which took about 500 people working in communication and logistics.

The app, which was adapted by the Ministry of Health and Prevention and Dubai and Abu Dhabi's health authorities, is likely to become a key tool in the UAE’s arsenal as restrictions are relaxed across the Emirates.

But it is by no means a replacement for a vaccine, experts said, nor should it be confused with an “immunity passport”.

Earlier this week, the World Health Organisation said that while most people may have some immunity following recovery from Covid-19, it is unknown how long such immunity lasts, and antibody tests are still unreliable.

"As a result, people granted immunity passports could return to normal life with a false sense of security, only to fall victim again," Robert Matthews, a visiting professor of science at Aston University in the UK, wrote for The National.

According to the WHO: “At this point in the pandemic, there is not enough evidence about the effectiveness of antibody-mediated immunity to guarantee the accuracy of an “immunity passport” or “risk-free certificate.””

But that does not discount how powerful data can be in the fight against Covid-19.

Al Hosn uses QR codes as proof of an individual’s health status. It is colour-coded – those who test positive will be coloured red, and green for negative. Grey is used for those who have not been tested yet. Users need their Emirates ID and phone number to authenticate the app, which also allows individuals to receive medical test results directly to their device.

The app also has a questionnaire that will help authorities better understand the symptoms of Covid-19 in different regions, Dr Al Hosani said.

"It was launched in a quick time but there will be many enhancements and we are looking for feedback from the community on how best we can serve them”, she said.

Besides the UAE, several countries are taking a similar, tech-based path.

Hong Kong, which reopened public spaces on Tuesday, asked those who arrive in the city to wear tracking wristbands to ensure compliance with quarantine orders.

South Korea has a smartphone app to map the movements of recovered virus carriers; and in the US, tech giants Google, Apple and Facebook are all looking into how to use location data to provide public health inputs to the government.

Apple and Google are also collaborating with researchers at MIT on short-range bluetooth signals, in an effort very similar to the UAE app.

In the state of Massachusetts and the city of San Francisco, contract tracing through local mobile apps are also under way.

But the earliest efforts have come from China, where the outbreak originated.

Since February, Chinese officials have been working with mobile payment service Alipay and messaging service WeChat to roll out apps to evaluate the public health risk posed by a user based on their state-issued ID number, address, travel history and self-reported health status.

They are given a 'health code' or 'colour code' - from green for good-to-go, to red for quarantine, which grants them access to shops, a Shanghai-based journalist described to the World Economic Forum.

Adoption is the biggest challenge for the success of any of these initiatives.

"Under normal times, I would say the most costly thing of launching a digital app is really about attracting people to volunteer their information," Dr Shirley Yu, a Chinese economist and senior fellow at the London School of Economics, told The National.

“If you were to ask me to submit my personal data information to a mobile app, I probably will be unwilling to do so in normal times. But during this crisis period, the cost of collection became virtually zero. Because without having this data, QR codes, then it means immobility.”

Health minister Mr Al Owais put it another way when Al Hosn was first introduced: "We can contain this virus only if we all act together, each one giving the others protection and peace of mind.”

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