Can Bluetooth Contact Tracing Apps Really Help Fight Pandemics?

  • New apps from the likes of MITGoogle, and Apple rely on Bluetooth to automate the contact-tracing process, which health care professionals use to notify people who may have come into contact with a COVID-19 patient.
  • The idea is to proactively trace individuals’ movements so that if the person does eventually test positive, there’s a definitive way to track their previous whereabouts–and who else was nearby at the time.
  • While sound in theory, these apps will only work if a broad swath of the population adopts them.

After a patient tests positive for COVID-19, health care professionals begin to notify individuals who may have crossed paths with that person. This is both for their own safety and to ensure that those infected self-quarantine to quell the spread.

But a March 31 paper published in Science details how the break-neck pace of this pandemic cannot be tracked through traditional methods (often involving painstaking in-person interviews). So the experts turn to technology by recommending digital contact tracing as a way to prevent widespread lockdowns.

“A contact-tracing app which builds a memory of proximity contacts and immediately notifies contacts of positive cases can achieve epidemic control if used by enough people,” they write. “By targeting recommendations to only those at risk, epidemics could be contained without need for mass quarantines (‘lock-downs’) that are harmful to society.”

Countless examples of this sort of technology are already in development, including a joint Google-Apple venture that the two tech giants announced April 10, and an academic effort called PACT (Private Automatic Contact Tracing). Led by the MIT and in partnership with a consortium of universities and public health organizations, PACT researchers have banded together to build a Bluetooth protocol meant to track users’ location and COVID-19 status.