Some time back I wrote about the digital contact tracing efforts being made by a variety of public and private institutions. The endeavour, fraught with privacy considerations, has yet to truly prove its potential – little evidence of the efficacy of the approach has been gathered. In an effort to change this, the UK government has recently attempted to release an update to their app, built upon the Apple/Google framework, in lockstep with a change in the nation’s COVID policy. The app would begin to gather and store geographic tracking data to enable authorities to better respond to outbreaks as citizens break free of a long lockdown to socialise in outdoor eateries and pubs. This move however has met resistance from both Apple and Google, who are thankfully taking users’ privacy very seriously.
As the public sector and the private sector collaborate to respond to the need for quick and reliable testing in the face of the Covid pandemic, it is interesting to see armies of young people, relatively invulnerable to the most severe effects of the virus, working in a coordinated and orderly fashion to provide the testing facilities that we depend upon in order to maintain some degree of normalcy in society.
Contact tracing, the process by which health authorities can identify those at risk of infection by virtue of proximity to a known case of a virus, has long been a pillar of pandemic response. With radio-enabled mobile devices now globally ubiquitous, it comes as little surprise to see that they are playing a role in the evolution of contact tracing methods.
Contact tracing is only as effective as its scale. The ability to evaluate only small proportions of an at-risk population will ultimately undermine any contact tracing system, manual or digital. As early attempts to develop contact tracing apps launched around the globe, technical limitations, privacy concerns and poor assumptions about adoption rates undermined almost all efforts. Into this mess stepped Apple and Google, together responsible for the software, and to a lesser extent hardware, which power the majority of our mobile devices.
This is just a drill. What is reassuring about the COVID-19 pandemic is the fact that we humans have prior experience of pandemics. We, as a millenia old global society, have learned from the suffering of so many before us, and can reason about the course of this outbreak as it traces the scars of pandemics past. It is this knowledge which allows our scientists to confidently inform our responses to the challenge we presently face. Contagion factors, mortality rates, exponential curves – these are all intuitive factors in the relatively straightforward science of viral transmission.
Despite this prior experience, and despite an intuitive and relatively simple mathematical foundation for modelling the impact of a viral outbreak, society has struggled to respond in a coordinated, cohesive and intellectually sound manner. And as such the disease has killed thousands, spread globally at a rate which continues to grow exponentially, and has caused economic damage running to trillions of dollars.