How useful can be the digital contact tracing in the COVID 19 Pandemic?

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As the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak in early 2020, digital contact tracing tools have been largely developed and used by governments across the globe. Citizens have been persuaded that it is an important feature of the control of the deadly disease. In their article for SAGE magazine Digital Contact tracing in the COVID Pandemic: A tool far from reality, Ajay Hegde and Ramesh Masthi discuss how helpful is the digital control tracing in the pandemic situation.

An instrument for breaking the chain is needed

Contact tracing has emerged as a security tool in recent months and as a groundbreaking instrument that will help to stop the spread of COVID 19. We all needed to try to terminate the chain of infection and local governments have started working with technological giants to create a suitable and effective way to control it. For example, in the largest populated country India, the data shows that once implemented, there were 50 million downloads overnight. In Europe, Apple and Google started cooperating on developing software with a forecast of 3 billion users.

And while human rights activists have raised privacy concerns, the epidemiologists claim that such a way of dealing with the problem leaves aside the constraints of inadequate testing and reluctance of patients to participate. If we look at similar previous situations such as Polio and Ebola control and the eradication of smallpox, contract tracing has been one of the fundamental pillars of communicating the importance of such strategy together with the vaccination. However, during H1N1 influenza in the 2009 outbreak, the contact tracing strategy failed without a result.
The main argument of the scientists for the questionable efficiency of the contact tracing is the fact that such steps are important in the early stage of the epidemy while the virus still has not taken its place in the society. To better understand the severity of the virus, the epidemiological mathematicians explain the number R01 and estimate that: “SARS CoV-2 has an R0 value of 2.5, and that about 70% of contacts will have to be successfully traced to control early spread. However, there is a concern in the scientific community whether a pathogen with an R0 of 2.5–3 could engulf the planet in 3 months, and a belief that taking into account asymptomatic carriers, R0 may rise to as high as 15.4.
An illustration of the importance of R0 value might be found in the Singapore example: an overall stable in terms of pandemic country where the TraceTogether application was introduced at an early phase. In the small Asian country “it was installed by a million, which roughly translates to only 1 in 6 individuals. After a month’s usage of the application(...) experts have already voiced concerns about the fact that false positives and false negatives have real-life (and death) consequences.

Epidemiologists still have a lot of work in studying the COVID-19

Coming back to the main argument of Hegde and Masthi: they develop it saying that one epidemy is influenced by many more factors rather than just the algorithm of being in contact with X number of people for Y amount of time. The virus is a viable organism and can remain effective with hours in the aerosols of surfaces (an obvious example is the well known super spreader from Washington choir who infected 45 contacts while social distancing or the fact that nearly half of carriers may be asymptomatic are being confirmed by extensive testing in countries). Also, the science is still not clear around the time while one is contagious.

What remains for the near future?

In a conclusion, the epidemiologists pose two very important questions:
  • The contact tracing might be a good solution for a very early stage of a pandemic, currently, the hyper-local /postal code/ could be a better solution.
  • It is rather unclear how the problem around the data-privacy regulations and monitoring of a large number of people is solved and how do the governments use such data. Some of the scientists suggest that in some cases the contact tracing appears as a tool for covering the government’s incapacity to control the deadly virus.