60 percent of population need to use contact tracing apps in order for them to be effective – Oxford University study

By Harvey Kong, Jacob South-Klein and Vanessa Balintec

Contact tracing applications can be effective at containing the virus, but only if enough people use them, experts say. (Photo/Harvey Kong) 6/5/2020

Contact tracing applications have emerged as one of the solutions to trace COVID-19 infections, with nations racing to develop their own applications. As contact tracing applications are rolled out around the world amid privacy concerns, questions about their efficacy have been raised.  

Singapore launched its voluntary contact tracing application in March, but the New York Times reported that only 20 percent of its population downloaded the application. Australia saw a similar issue, where only 20 percent of the population downloaded the application, despite a 40 percent uptake target set by the government as reported by The Guardian.

Simulations by Oxford University revealed that the epidemic can be stopped with 60 percent of the population in a given area using the application, whilst also implementing measures such as social distancing. The study demonstrates the need for wide-scale adoption for contact tracing applications in order for them to be effective.

Hong Kong citizens wear surgical masks in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong’s shopping district (Photo/Harvey Kong) 6/5/2020

One major hurdle to the widespread adoption of these applications are privacy concerns, as these applications use bluetooth or GPS signals to track COVID-19 infections. The European Union is currently embroiled in a debate over how this data should be collected, with member states backing either a centralized or decentralized approach to contact tracing applications. 

Renew Europe Member and Danish MEP Karen Melchior says she is in no rush to push out applications throughout the EU, as the apps will be “in place for a while.”

“I think it’s necessary to get the right system up and running because it’s not so much a tool to deal with the present situation, but it’s a tool for dealing with when we’re reopening our societies,” says Melchior. “And we will probably get a second wave of infections, and that’s when we need it – we need it to sort of stop that wave from becoming too big and too fast.” 

However, she also notes that contact tracing applications only serve to reduce the manpower needed for manual contact tracing and is one of many measures to contain the pandemic.

“This can help a lot, but it is only a tool which is part of a plan that also requires testing, continued physical distancing, hygiene measures such as washing your hands, wearing masks and these things.” says Melchior.

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