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Red Cross: Contact tracing still key to controlling pandemic

November 12, 2020

The Red Cross health director has told DW that contact tracing is vital to keeping the pandemic in check. With a surge in infections, many countries are struggling to keep pace.

A Swiss soldier shows on a mobile device the contact tracking application created by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne
Image: Reuters/D. Balibouse

Contact tracing "remains key" to controlling the coronavirus pandemic, Director of Health and Care at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies Emanuele Capobianco told DW on Thursday.

"It always needs to be looked at with testing, isolation and quarantine," he said.

However, contact tracing becomes exponentially more difficult for health authorities as cases rise in a second wave. Capobianco said that despite this, it is still the most effective tool.

"What happens when the numbers are going up so fast and the cases are so (numerous) is that the system is simply not functioning well anymore. That doesn't mean that contact tracing or testing is not important, it means that we need to bring down the numbers and then step up, even further, contact tracing and testing capacity."

Contact tracing has been used very successfully by countries such as Taiwan and New Zealand to quash the virus. And it is proving highly effective in countries such as Argentina, Costa Rica and Jamaica.

In many European countries, such as Italy and the UK, efforts to trace infection chains are proving ineffective with a significant percentage of contacts unable to be found in time. Germany, too, has been struggling, and authorities hope new restrictions will bring back infection numbers to a traceable level.

Read more: EU plans international coronavirus tracing network

Turkey's COVID-19 case number debate

Data privacy

Capobianco told DW that privacy protections were very important for contact tracing and ensured that they do not erode democracy.

"It needs to be done with the absolute protection of the data and information of people. And that's why it's very important that this is done by professionals or people that are very well trained. But if we want to break this chain, like in any other epidemic, contact tracing — like testing, like isolation and quarantine — are critical tools that we cannot do away with."

There have been growing concerns for the protection of privacy amid efforts to trace infection chains, with some apps allowing the potential for invasive personal tracking. Many governments, including Germany's, have been mindful of this risking public support, and have baked in privacy protections to their tracing apps.

Read more: COVID-19 tracing apps proving to be a tricky business around the world

Local health authorities reach their limits

Vaccine concerns

Capobianco told DW that once a vaccine is developed, it must be distributed fairly to countries and people that are both financially and medically vulnerable.

"There have been a lot of efforts to put in place systems to ensure equal distribution. It is unlikely that we'll see that happening," he said.

"We need to continue advocating — that's what the Red Cross does — for that to happen, so that the people who are particularly at risk have it first and also across countries to make sure that the low income countries, the fragile settings, are not forgotten and the people in those countries are not the last to receive it. And it's a big political fight that we all need to really go into to ensure that people have access to the vaccine in an equal way."

Read more: WHO warns against 'vaccine nationalism'