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New Zealand team creates world-first in the fight against Covid-19

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

In a world first in the global fight against Covid-19, a New Zealand company has created an app that can help to slow the spread of the deadly virus - a personal, early warning indicator for Covid-19 infection, compatible with multiple brands of popular wearable devices.

Called ëlarm, it overcomes one of the greatest obstacles to protecting our communities from the Covid-19 virus - that it’s spread by people who don’t know they’re infected.

‘With ëlarm, you can know you’re sick before you feel sick,’ says app developer Paul O’Connor of the data analytics company Datamine.

‘We believe this app is a real New Zealand success story - one more to add to the Covid-19 story.

‘Not only has New Zealand led the world in its management and containment of the virus among our population; we’ve come up with the technology to help slow the virus’s transmission in other countries as well.’

Datamine worked with medical specialists in New Zealand, Australia, United Kingdom, Europe and the USA, to build robust models that analyse a person’s health data to detect hidden symptoms of the virus - the biometric changes that occur as the body begins fighting the virus, such as heartrate, heartrate variability and skin temperature.

‘Research shows that wearables are able to predict Covid-19 up to three days before a person develops noticeable symptoms such as fever, fatigue and breathing difficulties - with over 90% accuracy,’ says Mr O’Connor.

‘ëlarm will be of particular benefit to the vulnerable people in our communities, to front-line healthcare workers, and also to businesses desperately trying to operate safely in this difficult environment,’ he says.

In New Zealand, as we move towards level 1, ëlarm will enable people to reconnect with their loved ones, and generally go about their daily lives, with added confidence they are not carrying the virus. In the interim between now, and the development of a vaccine, ëlarm is a way for us to live as normally as possible with a much reduced fear of infecting others, or becoming sick ourselves, Mr O’Connor says. It could be a useful safety tool for travellers coming into New Zealand.

However, with Covid-19 still a major threat around the world, ëlarm is primarily aimed at the overseas market.

‘For countries hit harder than New Zealand, ëlarm will help to slow the spread of the virus, because people can self-isolate and, if necessary, seek medical treatment before they infect many others. For instance, in the course of our research we talked to several people in the United States who mentioned they were anxious about going home to vulnerable loved ones. We know that ëlarm can lower that fear considerably.’

The value of wearable devices in tracking health information is widely acknowledged. Other teams around the world have been working to find a way of using them in the fight against Covid-19. Some wearable companies are developing apps that work within their own platform. But no other team has developed an app that can successfully detect indicative symptoms, and that works across multiple wearable devices. ëlarm is an agnostic app, compatible with multiple brands of readily available wearable devices such as Apple, Samsung, Fitbit, Oura, Garmin, Huawei, Samsung, and can interface with Google Fit.

ëlarm is available to anyone, anywhere, who owns or purchases a supported wearable device.

For the past two years, Datamine has worked with health business clients to develop a health platform, part of which is a ‘health vault’ - a place where people can safely store their personal health data. During that time, the company also worked with wearables data, storing that data and analysing the data streams.

‘Then when COVID-19 came along, we looked at what we could do to help, and we saw that we had the precise experience to make a useful contribution,’ Mr O’Connor says.

Talking to health professionals, it quickly became clear that a fundamental weakness of any defence against the virus was not knowing until it is too late that someone is carrying the virus. Some people never develop symptoms, yet are infected and can infect others.

‘We looked at the literature around identifying flu using wearables, and believed we could use similar techniques for COVID-19,’ Mr O’Connor says.

Collaborating with clinicians here and overseas, over the past three months a Datamine team of data engineers, analysts and software developers built a prototype.

Professor Michael Baker, one of New Zealand’s leading epidemiologists, while not involved in developing the app, is intrigued by the potential of this technology, noting this is just the first step: ‘I think it's very encouraging that New Zealand is producing exciting innovations in the area of new surveillance tools for tracking people who are potentially infected by Covid-19 and other infectious agents. There are many potentially useful applications for this technology. More field testing is obviously needed with this tool to assess its effectiveness and ensure it is applied to the most pressing and relevant problems.’ ‘The urgency of slowing the spread of COVID-19 through our global population is extreme,’ Mr O’Connor says. ‘Therefore, we have made the decision to get this app into use before the completion of clinical trials. These are extraordinary times; but we are confident, based on the trials we have conducted, and on the extensive data we’ve gathered from clinicians around the world, that ëlarm is a reliable predictor of COVID-19 symptoms.’ Note: ëlarm does not provide medical advice. When the models detect the biometric changes indicating viral infection, the user is alerted and given the relevant World Health Organisation guidelines to keep themselves and others safe.

Although the identification of COVID-19 symptoms is the current focus, Mr O’Connor says in future ëlarm could be used for other illnesses as well.

The app is available anywhere in the world and can be purchased through our website:

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