This One Thing Could Stop the Spread of Coronavirus Without a Vaccine

Two huge tech companies have joined forces to create a tool that could change everything.

As the world waits for a COVID-19 vaccine to be created and disseminated, other forms of slowing the spread of coronavirus are in practice. There are those that are up to individuals, such as hand washing, social distancing, and wearing masks in public, but some of the biggest and most powerful tech companies in the world are also looking to do their part and take some of the responsibility out of our hands. Google and Apple have collaborated on tools to assist governments in building phone applications for discreet contact tracing. Without users having to do anything but download it, this app can help stop the spread of coronavirus by automating a proven effective strategy.

Contact tracing can also be done the old fashioned way: Basically, when someone tests positive for coronavirus, they would mentally retrace their steps and make a list of who they've come into contact with in a given time period. Those people would then be notified, encouraged to take precautions against infecting anyone else, and possibly tested. Contact tracing slows the infection rate because fewer people are unknowingly spreading the disease.

Of course, contact tracing without the help of technology is time-consuming. It's also limiting, as it relies on memory; and chances are that infected individuals have come into contact with people they don't know and are unable to alert. The program information that Apple and Google are making available uses the Bluetooth technology in your phone (the way it can communicate with other devices in a short range, like when you connect your phone to a Bluetooth-enabled speaker to play music) to log interactions over a two-week period. So not only will the app have a record of the friend you sat in the park with, it'll also have the grocery checkout clerk who handed you your bags—as long as they also have the app and their phones near them.

This information will assist health officials in tracking down more probable cases. Say you were to test positive. An alert would notify all of your logged interactions so that they could isolate and watch for symptoms or even get tested.

The caveat is usage. The Oxford University scientists who consulted on the U.K.'s tracing app estimate that 56 percent of a population must use the app in order for this form of contact tracing to be effective. Whether or not that's achievable remains to be seen, especially when concerns about privacy and monitoring are involved. To that end, Apple and Google have made privacy a priority. Users will be identified by a code, not by name. The alerts to individuals infected users have encountered will be anonymous. Granted, these efforts may not be enough for those who prefer to be off the grid as much as possible.

The wheels are in motion, however, and many governments have started the process of building their own apps. CNET reported that the companies announced last week that several U.S. states and 22 countries have already requested access to the tools created. Per ZDNet, the first app using these tools has already gone live in Switzerland. SwissCovid is in the pilot stages and being tested by employees of two universities; the plan is for it to be available to the public next month. So look out for your state potentially rolling out a coronavirus tracking tool in the coming weeks. And for more about the near future, Here's When the Second Wave of Coronavirus Is Coming, Doctors Warn.

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