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Contact-tracing mobile app could help track the spread of coronavirus

A person sitting on a couch holding a smartphone.
(Image: © Shutterstock)

A team of researchers at the University of Oxford is working on a mobile app that could speed tracing of the new coronavirus through communities.

The phone app would record the owner's contact with other app users. If an app user is diagnosed with the virus, their recent contacts would receive messages advising them to isolate. It's a strategy with obvious negative implications for people's privacy, but one that the researchers argue is nonetheless worth pursuing given the failure of current contact-tracing methods, the already widespread nature of the virus, and the fact that the app would be an optional measure that individuals could voluntarily choose to adopt.

David Bonsall, a researcher at Oxford, said in a statement that, "Our findings confirm that not everybody has to use the mobile app for it to work. If, with the help of the app, the majority of individuals self-isolate on showing symptoms, and the majority of their contacts can be traced, we stand a chance of stopping the epidemic."

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The program would not work as an independent effort by individual mobile app developers, the researchers said. Rather, it would have to be part of a larger suite of tools and programs for contact tracing deployed by governments. The research group responsible for the proposal says that it has the support of the United Kingdom and other European governments.

The best way to prevent the spread of the virus is to stay inside as much as possible and avoid contacts with people outside of your household. If you suspect you may have coronavirus symptoms, call your doctor.

Part of the reason new contact-tracing ideas are so important in part because the disease appears to spread easily before any symptoms are evident, the researchers said.

"Regular hand-washing and hygiene remain important," Bonsall said. "In addition, people should follow any recommendations to reduce close contact with others, especially in densely populated areas. Combining these measures will help to reduce onward transmissions."

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Originally published on Live Science

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