Contact-tracing technology is our world’s newest secret weapon in the ongoing fight against the coronavirus, but it’s still a developing strategy.
In many places, human contact tracers bear the burden of tracing the potential spread of infection from a person diagnosed with COVID-19 back to the people- potentially hundreds or thousands of them- with whom they possibly interacted.
Spain, however, is seeking to overcome human error and inefficiency with its own contact tracing app. An initial test suggests that the technology is twice as effective as human tracers. Will it prove to be as valuable as it appears in slowing the pandemic’s activity?
How Does the App Work?
The Spanish-made app uses a system developed by Google and Apple to ensure privacy by holding data on individual devices. It relies on Bluetooth short-range radio to collect the information needed to perform effective contact tracing.
Overall the app works by logging the details of every physical contact a person makes, then alerting people when someone they have been near tests positive.
“The app sees more than we see because we only remember contacts with people we know, but the app also remembers contacts with strangers,” explained Carme Artigas, the head of the state digital and artificial intelligence unit. “It is anonymous and much less intrusive than receiving a call from someone who wants to reconstruct everything you have done for the past 15 days,” she added.
A Test Run in a Tourist Hotspot
Spain authorities ran a simulated test of its app on La Gomera, an island next to the tourist hotspot of Tenerife in the Canary archipelago. About 3,200 “beta testers” downloaded the app. Each participant anonymously entered randomly distributed codes into the app, some of which falsely indicated a positive COVID-19 test.
The test ran for about two weeks. For every “positive” COVID-19 test result the app received, alerts were sent to everyone who had spent a minimum of 15 minutes at a proximity of 6.5 feet or less with the person who tested positive.
According to Artiga’s ministry, the app identified an average of 6.4 contacts with others for every virtual positive diagnosis, compared with an average of 3.5 contacts identified by human tracers in the Canary Islands. That makes the app nearly twice as effective, proving its potential value in Spain’s efforts to thwart the coronavirus.
Artiga’s team hopes to offer this app technology to regional health authorities, who could in turn have it ready for public use by the early fall. This timeline is accelerated for tourism-dependent areas and locations where cases are already rising.