Published: 24 July 2020
Researchers have developed an app to investigate if wearable devices and smartphones can help determine how COVID-19 spreads and how the pandemic affects people's mental and physical health.
The researchers, funded by the NIHR Maudsley Biomedical Research Centre, have created the Mass Science app, which allows participants in the COVID-Collab study to connect wearables, such as Fitbit devices, and share data including heart rate, activity and sleep.
Additionally, participants can use the app to provide information on geographic location, mood, and mental health, as well as COVID-19 symptoms and a diagnosis if they have tested positive for the disease. Historical data can be analysed by the team, so if a user was diagnosed with COVID-19 in the past, they can use the study app to share their data covering this period of illness.
Previous research published in The Lancet Digital Health shows that resting heart rate data and other key health indicators from wearables have the potential to identify flu-like illness before symptoms emerge.
By looking for differences in the collected data during the time of reported illness compared with participants’ normal healthy periods, the researchers hope to develop and validate an algorithm that can be used to detect COVID-19 before symptoms start. With further development, this approach could form the basis of a continuous monitoring system that sends users alerts when they might be experiencing early symptoms.
Researchers hope to answer key questions such as how contagious the virus is, and how different social distancing measures affect the transmission rate of the pandemic in the UK.
Study lead Dr Amos Folarin, Software Development Group Leader at the NIHR Maudsley Biomedical Research Centre, said: “With a lack of information on who is infected in the population, especially asymptomatically, we are investigating how wearable data can be used to detect COVID-19. Having a cheap, continuous digital test for infection could be a game changer.
“When you indicate you are experiencing symptoms in the app, we'll be able to look at your data before, during and after this period and compare it to your healthy baseline data.
“Passive monitoring of symptoms coupled with movement data could be very useful as lockdown is cautiously lifted across the country. As shops, schools and other businesses reopen we expect an overall increased movement of population and potential for a second wave of COVID-19.”
Professor Richard Dobson, Head of Department of Biostatistics and Health Informatics at the NIHR Maudsley BRC, said: "There are more than 8 million regular wearable device users in the UK and the data generated from these devices could be really important in helping our understanding of disease onset and disease trajectories, provide regional disease surveillance and support a safe lockdown release."