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Oxford and Google research shows that tracing apps are effective at reducing COVID-19 impact

Research has found that the number of infections, deaths and hospitalisations caused by COVID-19 could be reduced through digital contact tracing systems, when used alongside other measures like social distancing and effective testing.

A team of researchers from the University of Oxford’s Nuffield Department of Medicine and Google Research have used data from three counties in Washington State, USA, to try and understand the impact that a digital contact tracing system could have on the number of coronavirus cases, hospitalisations and deaths across a population.

Professor Christopher Fraser of the Nuffield Department of Medicine, co-author of the paper and scientific advisor to the UK Government’s Test & Trace programme, said that the research showed that “a well-staffed manual contact tracing workforce combined with 15% uptake of an exposure notification system could reduce infections by 15% and deaths by 11%.”  

The paper has used data from Washington and traced social interactions and mobility patterns in homes, workplaces, schools, social gatherings and on transport to construct different scenarios using Oxford’s epidemiological model OpenABM-Covid19, aiming to provide policymakers with a range of possible scenarios to use when planning for relaxation of restrictions and resumption of normal activities, whilst preventing further spikes of COVID-19.

The study has not yet been peer reviewed. It is worth noting, however, that a research paper published in April by Oxford came to similar conclusions, as has a more recently published paper by UCL.

Shawn O’Banion at Google Research, says: ‘In order to prevent COVID-19 transmission, we should consider targeted or phased reopening strategies, such as identifying specific occupation sectors or schools, based on less affected industries or age groups, or perhaps more stringent social distancing guidance in places that are permitted to reopen. Our simulations should help public health authorities to strike the balance between protecting people from infection and reducing the social and economic impact of prolonged or repeated lockdowns.’

Countries such as Singapore, Germany and Ireland already have digital contact tracing apps in place, which have been widely considered a success. The UK Government has also launched its own Test and Trace app, although the efficacy of the app has been widely questioned. However, this new research suggests that even low engagement with digital contact tracing, in conjunction with measures such as social distancing, can help us return to normality safely and quickly.

The pre-print publication of the study is available to view here. This paper has not been formally peer reviewed and awaits publication. Oxford’s OpenABN-Covid19 epidemiological model is open source and available to read in full here.

Ipsita Sarkar

Ipsita (also known as Ippy) is the Science and Tech Editor at the Oxford Blue. A second year Medicine student at Trinity College, her hairstyle changes more frequently than the weather.