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Students involved in virus experiment

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

Hundreds of students at the University of Auckland are about to get involved in an experiment that could help better understand how viruses like Covid-19 spread.

This is the pilot experiment of Safe Blues, a joint partnership between researchers at the University of Auckland and Australian, Dutch and American universities. The Safe Blues app uses Android phones and Bluetooth to spread harmless tokens among smartphone users in an effort to understand the relationship between physical mobility and epidemic spread.

Safe Blues has been developed to help public health officials control epidemics, such as Covid-19, by providing real-time data on the general level of contact between people. Such real-time data could, for example, help officials understand the effectiveness of different regulatory measures.

As participants run the Safe Blues app, it transmits and receives Bluetooth signals, or tokens, that mimic the spread of the virus. The app then reports the collective number of 'virtual infections' to a server. The data collected from the app is aggregated and anonymised.

"This experiment aims to improve scientific understanding of how physical mobility and epidemic spread interact and how evolving technologies for assessing epidemic spread can be improved," says Safe Blues project leader at the University of Auckland Dr Azam Asanjarani.

"The app on Android phones collects anonymised aggregated data on secure servers but is of course harmless. This data can provide epidemiologists with real datasets that should be a great resource for policy makers to beat future pandemics early on."

The spread of an epidemic such as Covid-19 in the real world is a complicated function of multiple elements including biological properties, preventative measures such as sanitation and masks, the environment, and the level of physical proximity between people.

But with a pandemic such as Covid-19, there is a delay of days or weeks between someone being infected with the virus and being recorded as positive. That means there can be a time lag of days or even weeks before decision makers know how effective regulatory restrictions have been.

Unlike contact-tracing apps, Safe Blues does not record any data about the identity of the people that come in contact with a participant, it just records whether their devices have received one or more of the Safe Blues tokens (provided that they are also running the app). But importantly, it reports this information back to a central database in real time. For the purposes of understanding how an epidemic is spreading in a population, this gives it a considerable advantage over contact tracing apps which report more detailed information on the identities of contacts but much later if the owner of a device tests positive.

The Safe Blues app has been developed to respond to contacts in the same way that a real virus does but only a small fraction of the population would need to participate for the app to deliver reliable predictions about the effect of social distancing on virus transmission.

The experiment starts from 1 May 2021 and is being run by Dr Asanjarani with colleague Associate Professor Ilze Ziedins from the Department of Statistics. All University of Auckland students, staff or even people who regularly visit the city campus are welcome to participate..

"This is an opportunity for our university community to show their solidarity with people all around the word who are suffering from the current pandemic," Dr Asanjarani says

"As a token of our appreciation, participants can go into a draw for multiple prizes including iPads, phones and FitBit trackers with the probability of winning depending on the amount of time they participate in the experiment."

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