How testing and tracing put down a pandemic

An artist’s conception shows microscopic coronavirus particles. (CDC Illustration)

Checking back to see who’s been in contact with newly identified patients with an infectious disease is a standard technique for containing an epidemic, but experts argue that it’s particularly important for the coronavirus pandemic.

Trevor Bedford, an epidemiologist at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, explains why — and lays out a relatively straightforward system for doing contact tracing in combination with testing — in a Twitter thread spun out today.

“We need a huge push to increase the speed and scale of contact tracing, but this doesn’t necessarily require ‘digital’ solutions,” Bedford writes.

The solution suggested by Bedford and his colleagues in the NextTrace effort makes use of mobile device data, but as a supplement to the traditional phone-based and in-phone interviews used in contact tracing.

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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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