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App aims to slow spread of COVID-19 in developing nations

Adrian Kriesch
May 15, 2020

Scientists at the University of Cape Town have developed a coronavirus tracing app for emerging markets — designed to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. However, implementing the app has been proving difficult.

Mobile phone showing Covi-ID app designed st South Africa's University of Cape Town
Image: DW/A. Kriesch

The view from the window of Co-Pierre Georg's workplace at home looked like a picture postcard. The sun was just setting on the Cape Town district of Camps Bay. The sky turned orange and reflected off the Atlantic Ocean.

But Georg didn't look out of the window. He was concentrating hard on the three screens in front of him.

He and his team had organized a web seminar for political decision-makers in Africa, during which he would be presenting his coronavirus tracing app, Covi-ID.

Covi-ID was developed by a team of 150 volunteer scientists, bankers, entrepreneurs and students.

Georg teaches economics at the University of Cape Town, with a focus on financial technologies. He also works for the German Bundesbank, as well as on Covi-ID.

Read more: Coronavirus could kill 150,000 in Africa: WHO

QR code for users

Covi-ID was designed to help track down those who had made contact with people infected with the coronavirus. It is targeted specifically at emerging markets.

Users can sign up for a free web application on which they are asked to enter their COVID-19 status. They are then assigned a QR code, either on their smartphones or — for the majority of South Africans who do not own a smartphone — printed on paper. 

The QR code is the heart of the app: "When you go to work in the morning, the QR code can be scanned as soon as you get on the bus, or by a security guard, or in the supermarket," Georg explained.

"Every time the code is scanned, you get a so-called geolocation receipt. It's like a note that says: On this day, at this time, you were at this specific place."

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Privacy concerns

Users keep control of their data. Their identities are checked via block chain, not stored on a central server. Users must agree to have the information released to health authorities if they test positive.

This will enable "contact tracers" to warn those who have been in contact with the infected user. Until now, tracers relied on an infected person's memory of whom they were in contact with, as well as when and where the meetings took place.

Read more: Africa's media hit hard by COVID-19 crisis

Shoppers must identify themselves

"Research shows that contact tracing only works if we find 60% of patients as soon as they show symptoms. And then we have to find 50% of their contacts as soon as possible," said Georg. "If it takes us four to six days to do this, it will be too slow to stop the spread of the virus."

Cape Town's Orangezicht City Farm Market has introduced a simple system: shoppers have to give their name and phone number before entering. Employees enter the data on a paper list.

"If a visitor to the market falls ill, we have to find everyone else who was here with him, so that they can isolate themselves and the virus does not spread any further," explained Sheryl Ozinsky.

Before the pandemic, the street food market attracted about 7,000 visitors daily, many of them tourists. The market was permitted to reopen at the end of April, but only to provide essential goods. Daily visitor rates dropped to 700. An app, said Ozinsky, would be an improvement on the manual system.

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Skeptical epidemiologist

However, as with all tracing apps, this one will work only if a large percentage of the population uses it. Only a few countries, such as China, force their citizens to do so.

Most governments know that people who fear state surveillance, or a lack of data protection, will not cooperate.

"Whenever someone comes to me with an app, I just shrug," said Salim Abdool Karim, an epidemiologist and advisor of the South African health minister. "I've learned that the promises are exaggerated and very little is actually delivered."

At the start of the lockdown, South Africa's president, Cyril Ramaphosa, announced that telecommunications companies were working on an automated tracing solution. But the system they came up with is too inaccurate.

Despite the interest shown by government representatives at Co-Pierre Georg's web presentation, no one has signaled any interest in South Africa, or anywhere else, to turn the app into a national project.

The researchers have therefore opted to work with private companies for now. A major insurance company has shown interest and Covi-ID is set to be tested at the OrangeJezicht market.

Read more: How COVID-19 is destroying Africa's tourism industry

Lack of tests

The biggest problem for a successful use of the system on the continent is the lack of testing capacity. South Africa has already tested more than 350,000 people suspect of having COVID-19 — by far the highest number on the African continent.

But while private laboratories deliver test results within 48 hours, some state laboratories take more than five days. No app can make up for this delay.

"Ultimately we are building a risk management tool," says Georg. "It will help the government ro reopen the economy in a quick, efficient and safe way."

But he also admits: "There will be no solution for COVID-19 without solving our testing problems."

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