WHO readies coronavirus app for checking symptoms, possibly contact tracing

OAKLAND, Calif. (Reuters) – The World Health Organization (WHO) plans to launch an application this month to allow people in resource-poor countries to assess whether they can have the new coronavirus and is considering a Bluetooth-based contact tracking feature also, an official told Reuters on Friday.

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A logo is depicted in the World Health Organization (WHO) building in Geneva, Switzerland, on February 2, 2020. REUTERS / Denis Balibouse

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The app will ask people about their symptoms and offer guidance on whether they can have COVID-19, the potentially lethal disease caused by the coronavirus, said Bernardo Mariano, WHO's chief information officer. Other information, such as taking the test, will be customized according to the user's country.

Although WHO releases a version in app stores globally, any government will be able to use the underlying technology of the app, add features and launch its own version in app stores, Mariano said in a telephone interview.

India, Australia and the United Kingdom have already launched official virus applications using their own technology, with common features, including telling people whether to test based on their symptoms and recording people's movements to enable more efficient contact tracking.

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Several countries are intensifying contact tracking or the process of finding, testing and isolating individuals who have crossed paths with an infectious individual. It is seen as vital to opening savings safely, and applications that automate parts of the process can speed up efforts.

WHO expects its application to attract interest in other countries, including some in South America and Africa, where case numbers are increasing. They may not have the technology and engineers to develop applications or strive to provide testing and education.

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"The value is really for countries that have nothing," said Mariano. "We would be leaving behind those who cannot (provide an application), who have fragile healthcare systems."

Engineers and designers, including some who had previously worked at Google and Microsoft Corp at Alphabet, have been volunteering for weeks to develop the new application, with about five of them overseeing the process. They are designing open source on the GitHub hosting service, which means that the code is open to the public.

Several team members declined to comment.

Mariano said he wants to include additional tools in addition to the symptom checker, including a self-help guide for mental health care.

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The team is also considering what the WHO calls proximity tracking.

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The engineers did some preliminary work and talked with smartphone operating system manufacturers Apple and Google about the possibility of adopting the technology that companies plan to launch together this month to facilitate tracking.

The technology has virtual "handshakes" between phones that are a few meters away from each other for at least five minutes. Phones keep anonymous records of such encounters, allowing someone who later has a positive result to send anonymous notifications to recent contacts about their possible exposure to the virus.

But Mariano said legal and privacy considerations have prevented WHO from committing to this resource yet. He expressed concern about the many companies that launch proximity tools that reverse and use the personal data they collect to generate revenue later.

"We want to ensure that all risks are circumvented," he said.

Apple and Google said their system will not use data for other purposes and will be stopped when the pandemic ends.

WHO plans to release guidance next week on issues that countries should consider when evaluating their own proximity tracking applications.

To reach people with limited access to the Internet, WHO is working to provide information via text messages. In March, it launched a WhatsApp account on Facebook Inc. to provide users with information about the coronavirus and partnered with the company's Free Basics program to make some information available without users being charged for data.

WHO also plans to launch an app next week to inform healthcare professionals worldwide about best practices for wearing protective equipment, washing hands and treating the virus. The organization already has a general application, WHO Info, which broadly mirrors the site.

Reporting by Paresh Dave; Editing by Greg Mitchell and Jonathan Oatis

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