Researchers develop Bluetooth-transmitting 'virus' to improve COVID-19 tracking accuracy

Elsewhere, Qantas is trialling a digital health passport on flights from Germany.
Written by Aimee Chanthadavong, Contributor

Researchers from the University of Queensland, the University of Melbourne, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States have jointly developed a virtual "virus" that could potentially be used to help more accurately assess the spread of COVID-19, and reduce the lag between people catching the disease and getting diagnosed.

Dubbed as the Safe Blues program, the solution relies on Bluetooth technology to transmit virtual "virus-like" strands between mobile devices to mimic the spread of COVID-19 infections in the community in real-time. Relying on artificial intelligence, the Safe Blues infections are then compared to the latest real-world COVID-19 data.

"Safe Blues offers a solution for real-time population-level estimates of an epidemic's response to government directives and near-future projections," the researchers stated.

"Safe Blues strands are safe virtual 'virus-like' tokens that respond to social-distancing directives similarly to the actual virus. However, they are spread using Bluetooth and are measured online.

"The relationship between strand counts and the progress of the actual epidemic can be determined using machine learning techniques applied to delayed measurements of the actual epidemic. This then allows real-time data on the Safe Blues tokens to be used for estimation of the epidemic's current and near-future state."

The researchers said the protocols and techniques of the program have been developed into an experimental minimal viable product in the form of an app on Android devices with a server backend, much similar to existing contact tracing frameworks, such as one the Privacy-Preserving Contact Tracing framework developed by Apple and Google.

However, the researchers touted the purpose of Safe Blues technology is "completely different", as it "does not record and store information about individuals and their interactions with the intention of mapping specific contacts".

Instead, they say the information produced by the solution can be "thought of as a proxy measure for aggregate physical proximity".

"Along with retrospective information about actual case numbers, it can be used to train sophisticated machine learning (ML) models to estimate SARS-CoV-2 infection numbers as a function of the prevalence of Safe Blues strands. Real-time information on Safe Blues strands thus provides, via the ML projections, live near future estimates of SARS-CoV-2 infection levels and can feed directly into policy decisions," the researchers noted in the paper, which has been published in the Patterns journal.

Read also: Australian Committee calls for independent review of COVIDSafe app

They continued highlighting that Safe Blues has the potential to be complementary to information collected by other contact tracing frameworks.

"Safe Blues has the potential to be a substitute, and possibly an improvement, for the micro-level distancing information derived from such surveys," the researchers said.

The research follows the Australian government announcing that it would invest more than AU$1.1 billion to extend the national COVID-19 health response until the end of the year.

Under this extension, telehealth services and care will continue to be delivered until June 30, while the government works to "review the ongoing role of COVID telehealth … and plan the permanent post-pandemic telehealth arrangements". It will also see support for the delivery of electronic prescription services and rapid pathology testing and tracing, among others.  

Elsewhere, in a move aimed at seeing international travel resume, Qantas is trialling the use of the CommonPass digital health app on its international repatriation flight from Frankfurt, Germany to Darwin, Australia.

The smartphone app will allow travellers to connect their testing lab results and upload them to the platform before their flight to prove they have tested negative for COVID-19, which is a requirement for all Qantas repatriation flights. Alongside their test results, passengers will also be able to upload their COVID-19 vaccination details on the app.

See: The fine line between global COVID-19 protocols and privacy (TechRepublic)

"We want to get our international flights back in the air and our people back to work and a digital health pass will be a key part of that," Qantas Group chief customer officer Stephanie Tully said.

"COVID test results and proof of vaccine will be required in many countries for quarantine-free travel, just as it has been for polio and yellow fever vaccinations in the past.  Even if it wasn't a government requirement, Qantas has always been a leader in safety and we have a responsibility to our customers and crew."

Repatriated customers will be invited to download the CommonPass app on their device as part of the trial.

Tully said in the long term, Qantas will look to integrate the app with the airline's own Qantas app.

"Ultimately we're focused on ensuring that the process will be as seamless as possible for our customers to share this information so they can travel internationally again," she said.

The trial with passengers follows a test run with Qantas crew last month.

Qantas recently announced its plans to restart regular international passenger flights to most destinations from October 31.

Similar trials are being undertaken by Air New Zealand, Emirates, and Etihad. 

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