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The COVIDSafe app might not have the ability to overcome its shortcomings


Credit score: Shutterstock

The Australian authorities’s contact-tracing app, COVIDSafe, has been touted as essential for restarting the nation’s economic system and curbing COVID-19’s unfold.

However till extra information are collected, it is onerous to estimate how efficient the app will probably be. Nonetheless, there are some predictable conditions through which COVIDSafe’s design might imply it’ll wrestle to fulfil its objective.

False positives

COVIDSafe makes use of Bluetooth to digitally “hint” individuals with whom a person has come into contact, with the intention of alerting anybody who has interacted with a confirmed COVID-19 case. However this know-how carries a threat of “,” whereby a person could also be falsely alerted regardless of not really having come into contact with the virus.

It is because Bluetooth radio waves pass through walls and glass. They’ll solely measure how bodily shut two persons are; they cannot inform whether or not these persons are in the identical room, in numerous rooms, and even in numerous vehicles passing one another.

In a high-density condo constructing, relying on the energy of Bluetooth alerts, it is attainable COVIDSafe might falsely alert loads of individuals.

The Division of Well being has acknowledged this complication, saying: “If this occurs and one of many contacts is recognized as having coronavirus, state and territory well being officers will speak to the individuals to work out if this was a official contact or not.”

Nonetheless, this course of might trigger pointless misery, and will even have unfavorable flow-on results on the economic system by preserving individuals house unnecessarily. False positives might additionally erode public belief within the app’s effectiveness.

False negatives

On the opposite aspect of the coin, COVIDSafe additionally has the potential for “false negatives.” Merely, it is not going to establish non-human-to-human transmission of the virus.

We all know COVID-19 can survive on totally different surfaces for varied intervals of time. COVIDSafe wouldn’t have the ability to alert individuals uncovered to the virus through a solid surface, corresponding to a purchasing trolley or elevator button, if the one who contaminated that floor had already left the scene.

COVIDSafe can also be not useful within the case of customers who grow to be contaminated with COVID-19 however stay asymptomatic. Such an individual might by no means get examined and add their contact information to the app’s central information retailer, however may still be able to pass the virus to these round them. Extra information is required on asymptomatic transmission.

And relating to the choice to categorise “shut contacts” as individuals who have been inside a 1.5m distance for 15 minutes—this will likely have been primarily based on research from Japan for when persons are in an open area, and the air is transferring.

Nonetheless, this analysis additionally confirmed micro-droplets remained suspended within the air for 20 minutes in enclosed areas. Thus, the 1.5m for 15 minutes rule could also be questionable for indoor settings.

Downloads vs utilization

Not too long ago, Iceland’s contact tracing app achieved the best penetration of any such app on this planet, with virtually 40% of the inhabitants opting in. However Icelandic Police Service detective inspector Gestur Pálmason—who has overseen contact tracing efforts – said whereas it was helpful in just a few circumstances, the app “wasn’t a game-changer.”

False positives, false negatives: it's hard to say if the COVIDSafe app can overcome its shortcomings
A survey carried out by College of Sydney researchers recommended in Sydney and Melbourne, COVIDSafe’s uptake might already be at 40% – however decrease elsewhere. Credit score: Shutterstock

Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison has stated on a number of events COVIDSafe requires a 40% uptake to be efficient.

Since then, federal well being minister Greg Hunt has said there’s “no magic determine, however each set of people who obtain will make it simpler and assist.” This was echoed extra not too long ago by Division of Well being appearing secretary Caroline Edwards, who told a Senate committee there was no particular uptake aim inside her group.

Previous modelling revealed an infection could possibly be managed if greater than 70% of the inhabitants had been taking the required precautions. It is unclear what science (if any) was forming the premise of Australia’s preliminary 40% uptake aim for COVIDSafe.

This aim can also be decrease than proposed figures from different consultants all over the world, who’ve recommended targets various from 50-70%, and 80% for UK smartphone owners. However the reality is, these figures are estimates and are tough to check for accuracy.

Demographic bias

There are lots of different uncertainties about COVIDSafe’s effectiveness.

We lack information on whether or not the app is definitely being downloaded by these most at risk. This will embody:

  • aged individuals
  • frontline and important service staff
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander individuals
  • individuals with underlying medical circumstances
  • these with much less entry to well being care
  • individuals experiencing homelessness

these with less access to COVID-19 information.

We additionally know COVIDSafe does not work correctly on iPhones and a few older mannequin cell phones. And older gadgets usually tend to be owned by those that are aged, or much less financially privileged.

What’s extra, COVIDSafe cannot fulfill its contact tracing potential till it is downloaded by a essential mass of people that have already contracted the virus. At this stage, the extra individuals contaminated with COVID-19 that obtain the app, the higher.

A troublesome nut to crack

Implementing a contact tracing app is a tough activity for our leaders and medical consultants. It is because a lot stays unknown concerning the COVID-19 virus, and the way individuals will proceed to reply to guidelines as restrictions elevate across the nation.

Predictions of the illness’s unfold have additionally proven numerous variation.

Thus, there are lots of unknowns making it inconceivable to foretell the end result. The essential factor is for individuals to not begin taking dangers simply because they’ve downloaded COVIDSafe.

And whereas the federal government pushes for extra downloads and reopening the economic system, ongoing opinions will probably be essential to bettering the app’s performance.


Contact tracing apps are vital tools in the fight against coronavirus. But who decides how they work?


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