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WHO’s new COVID-19 app may include contact tracking

The World Health Organization is preparing a COVID-19 app that will check the symptoms and let people know if they are likely to have coronavirus. The officials are considering whether to integrate the Apple and Google Bluetooth contact tracking system. Several countries and organizations have introduced coronavirus diagnostic tools to better alert people to their local healthcare providers when they are likely to need a COVID-19 test.

The symptoms of COVID-19 vary, and in fact there is a phase of asymptomatic infection for the first 48 hours. During this time, the individual can still be infectious, but show no symptoms externally. According to the CDC, some people can remain infected with coronavirus ̵

1; and be infectious – but show no symptoms.

The WHO app is currently under development, although the organization does not expect every country to use it. Instead, the focus is on low-resource countries that may lack the technology and engineers to develop an internal system, Bernardo Mariano, WHO’s chief information officer, told Reuters. “The value is really for countries that have nothing,” said Mariano.

In the past few weeks, the WHO has gained volunteer engineers and designers for the development of the app. Around five people monitored the development, it is said. When the process is complete, the source code will be published on GitHub as an open source project.

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While symptom assessment and user referral to their local supply points will be the main purpose of the app, WHO is also considering additional features. A possible addition is a self-help guide that deals with mental health during the stressful pandemic. However, proximity tracking is likely to be more controversial.

Here, low power Bluetooth is used to create a log of who may have come into contact with a person who was later diagnosed with COVID-19 infection. By unlocking this proximity database, potentially endangered people can be notified and even lead to test facilities.

Engineers working on the WHO app have apparently already spoken to Apple and Google, who recently announced that they are working on an exposure notification system that is compatible for iOS and Android devices. The two companies have developed a complex system to preserve anonymity as much as possible, with rotating device IDs and only records of how long devices were within range of each other. Nonetheless, data protection advocates have raised concerns about possible abuse, and the WHO is still not entirely convinced.

“We want to make sure that we isolate all the risks involved,” said Mariano about the Apple and Google system. While the engineers of the app have already started preparatory work to make it compatible, they still have to give the green light for final approval for legal and data protection reasons. The two tech giants have committed to using the collected data for no other reason than the exposure notifications, and the system will be deactivated when the pandemic is over.

Although governments can use the app code for their own localized version of the technology, the WHO plans to release a version itself in app stores worldwide. According to Mariano, the first version of the software will be released later this month.

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