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Covid-19 tracking app ready in June, tech firm chief says

The app could help the government's "test, trace, isolate and treat" strategy in combatting the epidemic. So far Finnish officials have made no decision on whether to use the app or any timetable for it's use.

An infection tracking app which has been used in Australia. Image: Darren England / EPA
Yle News

A smartphone-based application designed to track Covid-19 infection chains will be ready for use in June, according to Sampo Pasanen, the Finnish country chief of one of the app's developers, tech firm Reaktor.

Appearing on Yle TV's breakfast show on Wednesday, Pasanen said that in a couple of weeks the app will be tested in the hospital district of Vaasa, in western Finland.

Even though the app will be technically ready by June, there is no decision made so far by Finnish officials on any possible timetable for it's use – or whether they will start using the app at all.

The app will be free to download on mobile devices, but its effectiveness will depend on the number of people who install and use it, as it tracks other users to find people who may have been exposed to the virus.

The app will use wireless Bluetooth technology to "see" when one of the app's users has been within two metres of another user for more than 15 minutes. If one of those individuals ends up being infected, the app will help health authorities to reach out to those with whom they came in close contact.

"Among other things, [in Vaasa] we'll test how well the Bluetooth tech works and how good it is at locating people within a distance of a few meters, so we can know how strong the signal is. Then we'll consider, along with authorities, the scope of distance that the app will save," Pasanen said.

Once a person starts using the app, it compiles a list of other users the person has been near, but that information isn't forwarded to health officials until one of the users tests positive, he explained.

If an individual tests positive for coronavirus then he or she will be given a code to feed into the app which will then prompt it to forward the saved contact data to authorities, who will then notify affected -- and potentially infected -- users.

Three levels of use

Pasanen said the app is now functional and expects work on it to be complete by June, when it will likely be ready for use. Reaktor is recommending that the app be put into service at three levels.

"Our recommendation is that the first level should begin with a scheme in which health authorities cannot access the identities of the individuals who have tested positive, but users can be sent notifications if the system reveals they have been in close contact with a person confirmed to be infected. The app then informs users about the next steps they should take and which health authorities to contact," Pasanen explained.

At the second level, authorities will have access to a bit more information about the people who've been in contact with an individual, he said. Meanwhile, the third level of service would allow the app to be used in cooperation with authorities of other countries.

"Estonia, for example, is interesting from Finland's perspective. Data that would be forwarded [to another country] is kept anonymous, and other personal information about individuals does not need to be sent to other countries," Pasanen said.

More workers needed for tracking effort

Eeva Ruotsalainen, deputy chief physician of the infectious diseases division of Helsinki University Central Hospital (HUS), said she thinks the app will be of great help in mapping infection chains.

"The app will help to find all of the so-called unknown people that infected individuals have been in contact with. This way we can quarantine more people so that the virus does not spread further," she told the breakfast program alongside Pasanen.

Currently, infection chains are being traced in close cooperation with municipalities, she explained.

"When we call a person who tested positive for the virus, we interview them thoroughly. First we ask what day their symptoms started and we anticipate that the individual may have infected others, starting on the day before symptoms began to appear.Then we carefully review with whom the person has been in contact. Those calls can sometimes take up to an hour," she said.

Around 400 people in Finland are working to track infection chains, but Ruotsalainen said the country needs at least 200 more will be needed to expand the country's tracking programme.

7.5.2020 Corrected for accuracy: The developers believe the tracing application will be ready for use by June, but so far Finnish officials have made no decision about its use or the timetable of it's use. Correction added to third chapter of this article and to the lead.

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