Covering disruptive stories
As COVID-19 continues to devastate communities around the world, governments’ initial reactions - which were mostly that of surprise and shock - have been replaced with sheer determination to fight off the novel coronavirus by any means possible. Contact tracing is the latest approach, though by no means is it a novel one.
Contact tracing involves exactly what you would imagine - tracing a virus by establishing which people may have been exposed to patients with a confirmed case of the virus, via either PCR or antibody tests. It is a process used to understand how an infectious disease is spreading within a community, and serves two purposes specifically: to figure out who an infected person has caught the illness from, and then to establish who they’ve been in contact with while infectious. Contact tracing is a process used by health professionals right around the world, but only in recent years has the concept of contract tracing using technology become possible.
During the 2003 SARS outbreak, the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Africa and during the era of smallpox, contact tracing and follow-up control measures such as quarantine and isolation were crucially important. In fact contact tracing was widely credited with stopping SARS in 2004, after almost 8,000 people were infected and almost 800 died from the coronavirus. But contact tracing on the scale that was required for the SARS outbreak was tedious, labour intensive and fraught with complications, and so it was recognised in the aftermath of the outbreak that technology-based approaches were needed in future.
Fast forward to today, and the Australian government has just this week launched a controversial contact tracing app in a bid to stave off further waves of COVID-19 and lift the country out of lockdown. Covidsafe is an app that traces the movements of every person using the app if they have been in contact with another person using the app who has tested positive for coronavirus in the previous few weeks.
The app uses Bluetooth to identify and note the ID of any person the user gets close to who also has the app. If someone is infected with coronavirus, they automatically consent to Covidsafe uploading the list of anonymised IDs for the past 14 days of contact for contact tracing, using signal strength and other data to work out who needs to be contacted.
It’s a novel and brilliant means of keeping track of person-to-person contact during a pandemic, and uses bluetooth and location tracking technology to do so - something no infectious disease task force can achieve using pen and paper alone. But the question on everyone’s mind is - will it work?
Using an app or mobile technology to contact trace during a pandemic is mostly unprecedented, so to date there is little data to work with in order to evaluate for effectiveness. Perhaps the closest we have come so far is Singapore’s contact tracing app TraceTogether, which has been operational since late March.
But, much like Australia’s Covidsafe app, not enough people have downloaded the app yet for it to truly prove itself. Only a million people have downloaded TraceTogether so far, and Covidsafe requires at least 40% of the population to download it for it to be considered effective.
Singapore’s National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said TraceTogether needs a significant increase in the number of downloads for it to do its job properly.
“In order for TraceTogether to be effective, we need something like three-quarters - if not everyone - of the population to have it. Then we can really use that as an effective contact-tracing tool,” said Mr Wong, before adding that people also needed to ensure their Bluetooth was activated if the app was to work properly.
In the information era that we now live in - one distinguished by the proliferation of apps, devices and technologies we are constantly surrounded with, and where finding a suitable VPN is considered more important than installing security cameras on our property - it is no surprise that Australia’s Covidsafe launch has quickly been succeeded by much public outcry over personal privacy concerns.
Will the public’s unease over using a government-controlled data collecting app ultimately prevent Covidsafe from doing what it was designed to do? Thanks to new draft legislation introduced on Monday, hopefully not. In an effort to allay the privacy concerns aired by so many, the Australian Government has released draft legislation that says any misuse of information collected by the coronavirus app could be punishable by up to five years in prison and a $63,000 fine.
With these new reassurances in place, experts and officials are hoping that it will be enough to convince Australians to embrace the app and recognise its potential: to rid the country of Covid-19 once and for all. By utilising dependable bluetooth-relient technology, the app will be a highly effective means of tracking down any people an infected patient has been in contact with in recent weeks, enabling health officials to quickly track down potentially infected people and warn them, much more quickly than they would be able to if they had only a person’s memory to rely on.