Coronavirus sleuths focus on contact tracing

Contact tracing app
The Seattle-based NextTrace campaign is similar to the contact-tracing model used in Singapore for the government-led, Bluetooth-based TraceTogether campaign. (TraceTogether / Illustration)

The researchers who helped track down the origins of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. are now launching an effort to help contain it, using location data from patients’ mobile devices.

“This system would use cell phone location and proximity data to detect possible exposure events while ensuring that privacy is preserved and data is secure,” Trevor Bedford, an epidemiologist at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, wrote Tuesday in a Twitter thread about NextTrace.

Weeks ago, Bedford and his colleagues at the Seattle Flu Study and NextStrain analyzed the genetic fingerprints of the coronavirus to determine that it had been spreading undetected for weeks, rapidly infecting hundreds in the Seattle area.

Those findings struck the spark for last week’s launch of the Seattle Coronavirus Assessment Network, or SCAN, an ambitious effort to map the virus’ spread through intensive at-home testing.

NextTrace follows through on another one of the steps that Bedford outlined last month as part of an “Apollo Program” for containing the coronavirus outbreak. It’s similar to other app-based schemes for contact tracing, including Singapore’s TraceTogether app, the Pan-European Privacy Preserving Proximity Tracing initiative in Europe, California-based COVID Watch and Massachusetts-based Safe Paths.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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