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New Zealand studies advanced COVID-19 detection app

Image credit: www.rnz.co.nz/

The New Zealand government has been investigating if returnees and border workers should use a phone app that can detect COVID-19 two or three days before symptoms set in. Made in Auckland and dubbed “the future of healthcare” by an epidemiologist, the tech developer hopes this would plug gaps in the country’s COVID-19 response.

The app was developed using artificial intelligence and medical data from COVID-19 cases. The tech works by connecting to “wearables” – like a smartwatch – to look for the small physiological changes that happen at the early onset of an illness. It can pick up on slight changes in heart rate, body temperature and respiratory rate which happen before more obvious symptoms like coughing or fever show.

The developer said that they designed the system to go over 80% accuracy in terms of detecting COVID-19 two to three days before somebody knows that they are sick. With each new user it got, the company expected the system to keep learning, improving, and becoming more accurate.

The tech has caught the attention of officials in New Zealand, with the Ministry of Health confirming it was in active discussions with the company about how it might be used in the country’s pandemic response.

Neither the Ministry nor the tech developer will divulge any more details just yet, but the company’s officials said it could be useful at the border, for workers or returnees. They have had discussions around people coming into the country using the system. So, having a wearable on and seeing if there are any changes whether they are travelling or before they are travelling and when they come into the country in managed isolation.

The tech also caught the interest of epidemiologists in the country, who said people pre-symptomatic for COVID-19 had proven particularly good at infecting others, which was the reason the virus had spread so quickly around the world. Although the tech does not replace a COVID-19 test, experts say that finding a way to detect the virus early was important, so they thought the app has real potential.

They also said that the technology could be used to pick up when the virus was being transmitted between returnees in a Managed Isolation and Quarantine (MIQ) location, or it could replace the daily health checks that nurses carry out. Experts reiterated that every interaction, even a fleeting temperature check, carried some risk of infection.

So instead of doing the normal procedures and protocols, the Government could issue everyone who is going through MIQ, an app for their phone and a device that would continually monitor key indicators, or early indicators, of potential infection, that could be a great improvement, experts say.

For the Government, in a post-vaccine COVID world, it might be appropriate to have a much wider range of people using this kind of technology. It might be appropriate that all people visiting the country must use it for a time after entering the border, in substitution of quarantine, along with proof of immunity or further verification that they came from a low-risk country.

The Ministry of Health hoped it would be able to provide more details about any plans for the tech later this month.

Accordingly, along with the studies and usage of innovative technologies, New Zealand is not letting its guard down against COVID-19. Citizens and agencies worked together to keep case numbers low and stamp out the virus at home. But they are not resting on that success, says the World Health Organisation Regional Director for the Western Pacific. He also said that the country must continue to remain vigilant and the Government is rightly cautioning especially when the virus is still circulating in the world today.


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