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Study Suggests Fitness Trackers Can Predict COVID-19 Infections

Timothy Boyer Ph.D.'s picture
Data from fitness trackers could reveal potential corona virus infection.

Here’s how you can easily participate in a study that provides a mobile app for your fitness tracker, that collects data to help predict and alert whether you and others might have a COVID-19 infection.

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Researchers from Scripps Research Institute are seeking volunteers willing to download a free app for their fitness trackers in order to generate additional data to show that wearable fitness devices can improve public health efforts to control COVID-19.

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This study is based on an earlier one published in January 2020 in the journal The Lancet Digital Health, which demonstrated that activity and physiological trackers could provide current data making it possible to improve real-time and geographically-refined influenza surveillance. The significance of the study is that it shows how information from wearable tracking devices can be used to enact a timely outbreak response and prevent further spread of disease.

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The request for volunteers follows the recent publication of a newer study published in the journal Nature Medicine that addresses whether “…personal sensor data collected over time may help identify subtle changes indicating an infection, such as in patients with COVID-19.”

The study points out that one of the problems with preventing transmission of SARS-CoV-2 is the inability to quickly identify, track and isolate cases of the disease before infected individuals—both symptomatic and asymptomatic—can further spread the infection to others.

"One of the greatest challenges in stopping COVID-19 from spreading is the ability to quickly identify, trace and isolate infected individuals," says Giorgio Quer, PhD, director of artificial intelligence at Scripps Research Translational Institute and first author of the study. "Early identification of those who are pre-symptomatic or even asymptomatic would be especially valuable, as people may potentially be even more infectious during this period. That's the ultimate goal."

Dr. Quer and his colleagues have developed a smartphone app that collects both smartwatch and activity tracker data that tracks changes in heart rate, sleep and activity levels. The idea is that deviations from an individual’s norms on his or her tracking device could be an indication of viral illness or infection.

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According to the research news release, a program referred to as “DETECT” (Digital Engagement & Tracking for Early Control & Treatment) was created with the app to help monitor a person’s resting heart rate, sleep, and steps, with the added function of allowing the wearer of the tracking device to record symptoms of illness like fever and coughing.

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Thus far, health data collected from fitness trackers has demonstrated a roughly 80% prediction accuracy matching reported symptoms with actual cases of COVID-19 infection. The researchers found that increased time spent sleeping and less time being active from the tracker wearer data collected, were significant factors in predicting COVID-19 infection.

"What's exciting here is that we now have a validated digital signal for COVID-19. The next step is to use this to prevent emerging outbreaks from spreading," says Eric Topol, MD, director and founder of the Scripps Research Translational Institute and executive vice president of Scripps Research. "Roughly 100 million Americans already have a wearable tracker or smartwatch and can help us; all we need is a tiny fraction of them—just 1 percent or 2 percent—to use the app."

Currently the researchers are extending their study by seeking more than 100,000 people to use their app to help gather more data, which could help improve their predictions of who will get sick—including those who are asymptomatic.

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You can click on the MyDataHelps™ webpage for the health app download and becoming a part of the study.

Timothy Boyer has a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Arizona. For 20+ years he has been employed as a freelance health and science writer. Today, with an eye on the latest news, Timothy continues writing about science with a focus on what you need to know for healthier living. For continual updates about health, you can also follow Timothy on Twitter at TimBoyerWrites.

Image Source: Courtesy of FitNish Media on Unsplash

References:

"Early results from DETECT study suggest fitness trackers can predict COVID-19 infections," Scripps Research Institute research news release, 29 Oct. 2020.

Harnessing wearable device data to improve state-level real-time surveillance of influenza-like illness in the USA: a population-based study” Jennifer M. Radin Ph.D. et al, The Lancet Digital Health Open Access, published Jan. 16, 2020.

Wearable sensor data and self-reported symptoms for COVID-19 detection” Giorgio Quer et al., Nature Medicine, 29 Oct. 2020.

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