As more than 22.7 million people have been infected by covid-19 worldwide, researchers are increasingly turning to wearable health and fitness devices to gather data that could facilitate early disease detection.
Fitbit Director of Research Conor Heneghan has recently detailed the early findings of the brand's covid-19 study, which was launched in May to determine "whether Fitbit can help build an algorithm to detect COVID-19 before symptoms start."
More than 100,000 Fitbit users across the US and Canada have contributed to the research so far, with more than 1,000 positive cases of the virus reported.
According to Heneghan, wearable fitness devices detected nearly half of covid-19 cases the day before participants reported the onset of symptoms with 70 percent specificity.
Breathing rate, heart rate variability and resting heart rate are the metrics Fitbit uses to pinpoint an infection early, with researchers noticing that they began to signal changes nearly a week before participants reported symptoms.
"This is important because people can transmit the virus before they realize they have symptoms or when they have no symptoms at all. If we can let people know they should get tested a day before symptoms begin, they can isolate and seek care sooner, helping to reduce the spread of covid-19," Heneghan wrote in a blog post.
Detecting symptoms but at what cost?
Additionally, the Fitbit study has also identified the most common symptoms reported by individuals infected with the novel coronavirus. Among them are fatigue (72 percent), headache (65 percent), body ache (63 percent), decrease in taste and smell (60 percent), and cough (59 percent).
Only 55 percent of participants infected by covid-19 registered a fever, suggesting that "temperature screening alone may not be enough to understand who might be infected."
Meanwhile, researchers found that the duration of covid-19 varied depending on the severity of the case. Patients who had a mild case and recovered at home had an average duration of eight days, while those who required hospitalization were sick 24 days on average.
While these findings are preliminary, King's College London and the University of California have launched similar programs to assess how wearable health and fitness devices can help fight the pandemic.
Although these results are promising, some scientists have pointed out the ethical issues and regulatory concerns induced by using wearable devices to tackle the covid-19 pandemic.
"Most wearables are expensive, can be difficult to learn to use by non-native English speakers, or are developed without data from a broad population base. There's a risk that many people won't accept the technology," Albert H. Titus, Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University at Buffalo, warned in The Conversation.