Man in mask

How we could be fighting COVID-19 in the age of the smartphone

Blog by Dr Ramsey Faragher, Founder of FocalPoint

A week ago, I was busy planning my trip to Mobile World Congress - our technology is gaining traction amongst some global players, and Barcelona was to be the perfect place to have business meetings with people from across Asia, Europe and North America.

Now, all plans are off - MWC cancelled as the world watches nervously at the spread of COVID-19. On Thursday 30th January the World Health Organisation declared a Global Health Emergency. In the most extreme scenario this virus could kill over 50 Million people worldwide.

The annual flu and COVID-19 seem to have similar mortality rates, but COVID-19 has a much longer incubation period: around 2 weeks versus 2 days. This means it will be much easier for COVID-19 to spread across the entire globe than it is for the flu via ports and airports where our level of protection is based upon screening people for raised body temperatures and other obvious symptoms.

This got me thinking about the role that PNT technology could have in preventing this and future pandemics - and the huge impact that could be made by the smartphones, smart-algorithms and ubiquitous location based services that the majority of urban dwellers already uses.

Everything I describe below is possible today with existing technologies, and could be deployed relatively quickly given suitable co-operation between governments and telecommunication providers and of course, a humble smartphone app.

First - some context
Today, there are established systems in operation like E-911,E-112, and AML (Advanced Mobile Location) which perform certain background tasks (on behalf of the smartphone user) in an emergency service situation, for the greater good.

When you make a call to the emergency services these technologies pass on the best location fix for you that they can. This is all happening automatically with the emergency services in the background on an emergency call which means you, a possibly very distressed caller, don’t have to know your exact location in order to be rescued.

The concepts of smartphones using their smarts to look after us in the background is the theme of the following scenario too...

Let’s rewind back to December 2019 and the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan. In my alternative reality the only difference between this universe and ours is the existence of an extension of AML called Advanced Mobile Pandemic Protection (AMPP) supported by all Governments, telecommunications providers, and built into all smartphone operating systems. The key moment is on the 30th of January 2020 when the WHO declare a Global Health Emergency. On that date AMPP is triggered by all telecommunications networks globally, and our two universes diverge. Simple.

Here’s how it works:

When the WHO declare a Global Health Emergency, a notification appears on all smartphones declaring the emergency and informs everyone that AMPP is now enabled and what this means for the smartphone user.

From this point on, your smartphone will perform key background tasks:

  • Location based services and Bluetooth remain enabled at all times
  • All devices maintain an encrypted log of any other Bluetooth device that they have encountered (e.g. been within close proximity (2 metres) for more than 5 seconds)
  • Updates to this encrypted “encounters” log are uploaded hourly to the AMPP server

Whenever a new case of COVID-19 is detected and recorded by a hospital, border screening, or by another process, the health service official in charge will log the infected person’s unique identifier number (which is shown on their AMPP mobile phone app), onto the global AMPP system.

The AMPP system then interrogates the database of bluetooth proximity interactions for the infected smartphone-owner, and within seconds provides the list of all devices that the infected person’s smartphone has encountered over the last 2 weeks.

These devices are immediately notified that they have come into close proximity with a virus carrier and they are given instructions as to what to do next. These instructions will be guided by the health officials, perhaps involving self-quarantine, visiting a health centre or calling a designated COVID-19 hotline.

In extreme situations the same database of encounters could be used to prevent people from crossing borders until they have cleared their 2 week post-quarantine period and been cleared by a medical professional.

In principle the network effect could grow further - those who encountered these at-risk individuals could themselves be informed to quarantine themselves, and so on.

Such a capability could prevent an epidemic within a given region from becoming a global pandemic, but its efficacy is based upon assumptions that smartphones are carried by everyone who may attempt to cross a border, and that they carry them with them wherever they go.

Something like AMPP could certainly help to slow the spread of a contagion, and its biggest challenge is certainly not technological - it would rely on governments to mandate their telecommunications networks to adopt it, and for the public to be happy with it.

Neither are a trivial ask.