Is it time to use technology to trace Covid-19 cases?

Would Kiwis be willing to give up some privacy in the fight against Covid-19? Dr Ayesha Verrall and Peter Fuller detail how technology is being used abroad to enhance rapid case contact management and make a case for its ethical use here

When you have a problem, it pays to look at the people who succeed, especially those who otherwise see the world like you do. Taiwan and South Korea have managed to turn their Covid-19 outbreaks around without locking down cities or banning travel. Rapid case contact management has been central to their success. For this to be optimally effective as many as possible of the contacts of a case need to be identified and isolated as rapidly as possible. Standard public health practice that we use in New Zealand is known to miss a small but significant proportion of actual contacts because it relies on human recall. Taiwan and South Korea have augmented their contact management with relatively straightforward technologies which help rapidly identify contacts, including the crucial 10-20 percent missed through human recall.

South Korea has augmented rapid case contact management starting with cellular phone data. The moment someone tests positive for Covid-19, their phone records and geolocation data are pulled from the relevant computer systems. Within minutes a map of the case’s movements with their name removed, is published out to social media phone applications and mapped to their own movements. If someone has crossed paths with the infected person, they are alerted and asked to undertake testing. This approach, was successfully combined with truly industrial-scale testing. Taiwan has followed a similar approach.

Do we have the ability to rapidly introduce such measures here in New Zealand and what data sources would be accessed? The technology to achieve this is quite straightforward and the New Zealand software industry is capable of undertaking it within weeks not months.

For New Zealand, the question of whether such an approach would breach privacy principles is an important one. South Korea, a democratic country which regularly changes governments, and has a vibrant political culture, passed legislation that enabled the collection of private data from both already confirmed cases and their contacts. Taiwan has followed a similar model with similar legislation. 

A key test is whether somebody could be identified from the process and if the risk of this is considered worth it compared to the risk of an uncontrolled outbreak in New Zealand. This country has imposed fierce self-discipline on itself in previous emergencies including wartime rationing and massive public work camps in the Depression. Allowing the government to access this data in a trusted, regulated manner does not seem too great an ask.

Once this technology is implemented, and our outbreak at home is under control, it could be extended to border control and engagement of tourists over the first two weeks of their visit to New Zealand. This would be crucial to be able to restore our tourism industry. Covid-19 is not going to go away quickly at the global level and once it is under control in New Zealand we are going to need some assurance that our visitors are very low risk of developing Covid-19 disease and identified and managed immediately if they do. Combined with big data, the approach described above would achieve this.

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