The project is calling on people in the Netherlands to join its study on the ability of digital devices to detect signs of COVID-19 before the user even starts to feel ill.
One of the biggest challenges in controlling the spread of COVID-19 is the difficulty of identifying people who are infectious but don’t know it because they feel perfectly healthy. But what if digital technologies could detect subtle changes in our bodies and prompt us to get tested before we start to feel unwell?
From fertility tracker to COVID detector
Enter the COVID-RED project, which has started recruitment for a study in the Netherlands to answer this question. At the heart of the project is the Ava bracelet, a certified medical device that was initially designed to track fertility. As such, it measures things like skin temperature, pulse rate, and respiratory rate as well as heart rate variability. The team behind the bracelet quickly adapted the device’s fertility-detecting algorithm to pick up early signs of COVID-19 infection. In a pilot study in Liechtenstein involving over 1 000 people, the bracelet picked up signs of infection two days before the first symptoms appeared in 71 % of cases.
Now, the COVID-RED project has launched a new study to test and refine the bracelet and its accompanying COVID-detection algorithm and app in a larger group of 20 000 people in the Netherlands. They opened recruitment on 26 March, and by 9 April had hit the 10,000 mark, thanks in large part to strong coverage in the press and on social media.
Now the project is working hard to achieve its goal of recruiting 20 000 people. Participants will receive an Ava bracelet and will have to wear it every night, then synchronise the data with a special app in the morning. Every two weeks they will also be asked to answer a few questions via the app. Finally, participants will be asked to send in a few drops of blood four times during the study. The project has developed extensive materials to support participants throughout the study.
An opportunity to support science and learn about your own health
Asked what motivates people to sign up, project manager Annemarijn Douwes of University Medical Center Utrecht said: ‘People indicate that they are happy to contribute to a solution that could earlier detect a COVID infection, and they want to support science in general. Besides that, the bracelet and app give people insight into their own health data, like temperature and heart rate, which is something many people mention as a benefit of this study as well.’
The COVID-RED team hopes to be able to use the data gathered in the first months of the study to update the COVID detection algorithm by September. This updated algorithm will then be further evaluated in the following months.
Ultimately, the team hopes that the system will offer a new way to identify people with COVID-19 that will contribute to combatting the pandemic alongside other measures such as vaccination and contact tracing.
‘Wearable devices and complementary machine learning algorithms have the potential to help combat the pandemic, especially among populations less willing or able to receive a vaccine,’ said Ms Douwes. ‘We seek to compare the insight and potential advantages provided by wearable device technology against current standard of care in the Netherlands in a real-world setting.’