Suffering its worst quarter since the second world war, the US economy shrank by 32%, the UK had its largest drop since they started keeping track, and there hasn’t been a country on earth left entirely unscathed. Yet beyond those worrying numbers are real livelihoods ruined, businesses closed and employees furloughed with little understanding of when and how they can start work again or open their businesses. And the tragedy extends far beyond business.
245,000 lives have been lost in the United States alone with the global death toll over 1,200,000. What makes those numbers even worse is that unlike so many tragedies, the scale of this one was avoidable.
South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and others have been able to successfully control the spread of the virus without major outbreaks and they hold a vital lesson for the rest of the world. Governments must embrace tech for tracing and testing or prepare to face further heartbreak.
Full lockdowns and inaction come at too high a price
According to one study, 200,000 lives were saved by Italy’s strict lockdown measures and other cities from Wuhan and beyond are finding that their lockdowns were incredibly effective. Yet full lockdowns should only be implemented as a last resort, otherwise, they become the equivalent of amputating a limb to control the spread of an infection that could have been managed with targeted antibiotics.
The costs of full-lockdowns are staggering and they’re rising, yet governments can’t rely on inaction. Although Sweden had similar infection rates as its Scandinavian neighbors, they had a far higher death rate because of their lax policies – an enormous price was paid in human life.
Finding the middle ground
Selective lockdowns that don’t blindly paralyze entire economies are only achievable through deploying technology that effectively predicts mapping of transmission points, using advanced algorithms to merge epidemiological and behavioral data. However, some governments have chosen to embrace uninformed populism rather than truly evaluating the merits of how that tech is deployed. Just a few indicators that can be used to make data-driven decisions about selective and precise safety measure are super-spreaders, time and distance spent out of home and how many places are visited, all acquirable through annqonymized and aggregated data.
Individual tracing approaches are difficult to deploy and perceived as downright creepy. Norway halted individual contact tracing over privacy fears and other countries avoided it completely. That’s despite the fact that the individual’s data remains on their own mobile device, completely inaccessible without the patient’s consent. Examining how data is stored and encrypted as the vast majority of enterprises do, or taking an aggregated approach would solve that issue.
Aside from buying into privacy myths, the governments have been educating themselves on and embracing the necessary tech at a glacial pace. Virginia took three months to enact the tech necessary for effective tracing and that gave them the distinct honor of being the first state of 50 to do so. That’s because most efforts focus on “reinventing the wheel” instead of leveraging the highly valuable existing user bases that apps already have.
What a successful tech-powered fight looks like
Real-time visibility is one of, if not the most effective way, to proactively and dramatically reduce transmission without ever tracking and tracing individuals. It starts with ensuring privacy while acting on real-time insights fast enough to act within the 24-48 hours necessary to break the chain of infection. Aggregated and anonymized behavior intelligence is the perfect approach to take, as analyzing mobility and transmission patterns of entire groups makes anonymity easy to preserve while mapping high-risk areas and provide insights into transmission hotspots in real-time.
The key is to go far beyond a reactive tracking approach and increase visibility into critical factors such as transmission, contact and proximity that help inform a proactive policy. With this type of high-level insight alone policymakers can implement necessary guidelines only in specific targeted areas and minimize the overall impact on businesses while saving lives and economies.
Billions of dollars are being incorrectly allocated to the fight against COVID-19 based on models that are built off the locations of existing cases. Communication of policies, enforcement of restrictive measures, and virtually all other efforts are often disproportionately focused on the incorrectly identified high risk areas, based on the publicly listed locations of positive cases. The correct allocation of such resources should instead be focused on areas of where transmission takes place and hence where the virus is actually spread, based on a holistic real-time view that takes into account both epidemiological data and movement of populations. In the maps below we can see this demonstrated, with image on the right showing existing cases, verse on the left where we see areas of high transmission, risk epicenters that must be addressed to effectively control the spread of infection.
Intelligent testing focused on high risk areas
The final aspect of better prevention is tech-based testing that is highly targeted and enables a proactive response. Testing is the only way to know who is infected with a high certainty and it plays a crucial role in identifying cases, including some that track and trace programs wouldn’t be able to catch. The issue, however, is that testing can never be a “carpet bomb” because of a lack of testing kits, and sky high expenses. Even when testing does take place it’s often too slow to act within that 24-48 hour period critical for breaking the chain of infection.
Despite the challenges, tech solutions have come a long way, and fast. A team at Oxford for example deployed real-time predictive testing based on information collected from patients during their first hour in emergency departments with a high level of success, cutting down testing time significantly in preliminary results. Wearables too could play an important role in early detection and gathering valuable data for faster, more accurate results. Ultimately, the same capabilities that enable the analysis of indicators marking out areas of concern, can also play a valuable role in helping to predict negative and positive test probability. This breakthrough enables labs to conduct more effective pool testing, whereby low-risk samples are grouped together based on real-time behavioral data, instead of traditional data which is 10-14 days old and completely irrelevant. The byproduct of a behavioral approach is far fewer tests, less cost, and an infinitely greater ability to act fast in order to break the chain of infection.
In the absence of a silver bullet, tech’s impact can still be immense
Ultimately, only a vaccine will bring society back to normalcy, but until that happens we’re in a fight for our lives and our livelihoods. In that struggle, municipalities and health organizations can be an invaluable ally if they can find a way to move quickly to embrace some of the variety of big data capabilities out there that will enable effective tracing and streamlined testing. That embrace has the potential to help us win this fight and cement a partnership that will save lives for years to come.