28 Apr 20

Why we need tracing apps to get the economy going again

Policy makers are under huge pressure to allow businesses to resume their activities. The way out of the lockdown seems to be the so-called 1.5-metre economy involving masks and social distancing; “Still, to avoid a second wave of COVID-19 as we go back to life as we more or less knew it, we need more than that. That’s where the much-discussed tracing app comes in,” explains Frédéric Bruneteau, Managing Director of Ptolemus Consulting Group.

The world has been confronted with pandemics before. But nothing like corona. The problem with COVID-19 is that it is contagious even before symptoms manifest itself. “To contain its spread, we need a solution that warns people they might have been in contact with someone who tested positive. Rather conveniently, there is a device that enables us to both track our movements and close contacts with other people, and alert us if we are at risk of being infected through one of these contacts: our smartphone”, explains Frédéric Bruneteau.

But we still need an app that does the job. Following in the footsteps of China, Singapore and South Korea, Europe wants such an app to be developed asap – one that is trusted by European citizens, who are perhaps keener on their privacy and less geared towards the greater good than the Chinese. “That is why in Europe, the initiative is led by PEPP-PT, which stands for Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing,” he says.

“Consumer consent and the protection of people’s private lives are at the heart of the organisation’s approach, which aims at creating a European framework so we can travel cross-border in relative safety. The European member states’ economies are very interwoven, making travel very essential.”

The way it works

Every modern smartphone has Bluetooth technology to connect and communicate with other devices. Bluetooth can also detect which of these devices have been within a short range – say, within 1.5 metres. If that is the case, both smartphones exchange an anonymous digital key. If a person tests positive for COVID-19 in the following days, the attending physician registers this on a secured server.

The contact history in the infected person’s smartphone is used to push a warning to all smartphones that have been in close contact in the past two weeks, without however revealing the person’s identity or the time and place of the possible contamination. “The follow-up – calling the person at risk, having them tested, and so on – would be managed by the member state’s health authority.”

The version of Bluetooth used is called “Low Energy” – it keeps the smartphone’s battery from draining quickly when the app is running continuously. It is also the technology preferred by Apple and Google, who are joining forces to get the technology out there as quick as possible.

Key success factors

“For the app to be of any use, it must be used in sufficient numbers,” says Frédéric Bruneteau. Contrary to the Chinese authorities, the EU cannot impose the installation and use of such an app – the success rate is therefore the result of the willingness of European citizens to contribute to the system.  

Opinions vary as to the necessary effective use rate of the app. Some say 40%, as is the case in Iceland, is insufficient, and claim 80% is the required minimum. “All depends on what you want to achieve,” comments Frédéric Bruneteau. “An 80% download rate corresponds to a 60% effective use rate of the app, which is probably sufficient to eradicate COVID-19 in the medium. Still, if such percentages are not achieved, that does not mean the system is useless. It can still save countless lives. In any case, the more people use the app, the more lives will be saved and the faster the economy will recover.”

Also, there must be sufficient tests, evidently. “The app actually helps to make better use of these tests. Rather than testing people randomly, the tracing app allows governments to limit testing to people who have been ‘selected’ based on their contacts and certain criteria. You can make the ‘net’ as finely meshed as you want – from a contact perimeter of 1 up to 3 metres, a contact time of 10 seconds up to 15 minutes, and so on.”

Even though technically, the app could be launched in weeks, a lot remains to be decided on by specialists and governments. Its widespread use will be key to avoid a second wave of infections and a second lockdown period – something that is to be avoided at all cost.

Main picture: Shutterstock, 2020

Authored by: Dieter Quartier