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In close contact: UC San Diego groups working on contact tracing in COVID-19 battle

UCSD professor Farinaz Koushanfar and her team helped design an app for coronavirus contact tracing.
(Courtesy)

In the fight against the ongoing COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, scientists are taking testing data and looking at ways to enhance contact tracing.

Contact tracing is the process in which people who have been in contact with an infected patient are identified and warned of potential exposure to the virus and encouraged to stay home to prevent further spread.

Dr. Davey Smith, a virologist and chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and Global Public Health at UC San Diego, said he and his team are studying how COVID-19 spreads in order to better inform contact tracing.

Smith’s lab recently received a $1 million gift from the John and Mary Tu Foundation to aid its work, which also includes leading clinical trials to test new drugs for treatment of COVID-19.

His group is well-versed in “pandemics, HIV and infectious diseases like malaria and tuberculosis” and is now focused on “helping with some of the university and health department efforts, trying to get as many testing platforms up and running that can help with the contact tracing,” Smith said.

The lab validates COVID-19 PCR, or polymerase chain reaction, tests for active infection, as well as antibody tests, which indicate past infection and recovery.

The PCR test results are used the most for contact tracing, Smith said. “But even the antibody test can help with targeting” potential patients, he said.

Contact tracing, Smith said, is “mostly boots on the ground. It’s a lot about trying to get people identified, asking them who they’ve been in contact with. It’s going to be a big effort.”

Contact tracing app

Aiding that effort is Farinaz Koushanfar, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at UCSD and founding co-director of the university’s Center for Machine-Integrated Computer and Security. She and her lab, in partnership with a lab in Germany, have released a contact tracing app called TraceCorona.

The app works with hospital data of confirmed COVID-19 patients.

“If someone goes and gets tested at one of the major hospitals or health care facilities … we are able to track the patients,” Koushanfar said. The app then collects more data based on location and information gathered via Bluetooth.

The idea is that users download and install TraceCorona on their smartphones and it records proximity contacts between users with the help of Bluetooth. Users do not need to register during installation or provide any personal information, according to the app’s website, tracecorona.net.

TraceCorona stores the data in an “unintelligible way,” Koushanfar said. “If you come into contact with someone who has their Bluetooth on for more than a few minutes, which is the length of exposure needed from a certain distance, then you get this data stored on your phone. This data doesn’t go anywhere else; you have this random token stored on the phone.”

The data is used only to track COVID-19 cases and notify users when they are within range of someone who has tested positive.

“Users get a notification: ‘A person who has been in contact with you on this date has been diagnosed with COVID. Maybe you should try to take some measure, be careful about exposure to others’ … but nothing is intelligible from the point of view of the server,” Koushanfar said. “These tokens are generated to be extremely short-lived; you can’t really copy and reuse them.”

“The most important aspect of the app is its privacy-preserving part,” she added. “It doesn’t violate any of the privacy enforcement or personal privacy laws that are out there.”

The free app was designed primarily by developers at the Technical University of Darmstadt in Germany. Koushanfar said her lab “designed the protocol and the analysis of the privacy and security.”

TraceCorona is a “very targeted app,” Koushanfar said, currently aimed at “integration within the health care system.”

“The first initial goal is the safe reopening of some areas of the hospitals,” she said. “COVID-19 has disrupted many industries; the impact in health care is a lot of procedures have been postponed.”

However, she said the app is widely available, currently in a beta version for Android, with a beta version for Apple to be released soon. “In the long run, we would love to have this system for every possible person,” she said.

Widespread involvement also is important to Smith, who said: “The one message I want to get out most is that we’re in the midst of a pandemic. The way we get out of a pandemic is through science. It’s always heartening for me that the community is very much engaged in science and wanting to find answers. Everybody can help.” ◆


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