Contact tracing apps saved thousands of lives, says a new study

May 14, 2021, 2:28 PM UTC

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the tech industry sprang into action to see how it could help.

In addition to sending out drones to yell at people to stay home and robots to disinfect surfaces, one obvious idea was to modernize the age old practice of contact tracing. Since so many people now carry a location-tracking device at all times—a smartphone—could techies develop an automated update to the phone bank of contact tracers trying to warn potentially infected individuals?

The technology itself seemed pretty straightforward. Develop a simple contact tracing app, get everyone to install it, and use it to create a massive database that tracks who spent time with whom, where, and for how long. Unfortunately, that sounded a little too much like an Orwellian nightmare. Who would be in charge of this app? And what about people who falsely tell the app they were infected, just to set off waves of spurious warnings?

So Google and Apple convened an effort to build contact tracing right into their mobile phone operating software, where they could oversee it. Only legit government health agencies would be able to make apps tapping into the feature. Infected individuals would get a special code to enter and trigger the warnings. And the tech giants even considered the privacy issue, using clever encryption and built-in anonymity to prevent anyone from using the tracking data for nefarious purposes.

The reaction was…how to put it? Mixed, I guess. A bunch of countries and U.S. states agreed to develop apps using the system. But some said the privacy protection features were too strong, making the apps less valuable to health authorities. And many critics said the system was essentially useless because governments would never be able to persuade enough citizens to participate to make the warning system sufficiently widespread. “Coronavirus apps’ fatal flaw: Almost everyone has to use them or they won’t work,” screamed one headline.

Turns out, the critics were wrong. Very wrong. Very thousands of lives saved wrong.

We know that because of a new study just published in the journal Nature that examined the impact of the U.K.’s contact tracing app that relied on the Apple-Google technology. Since the app was released in September, about 16.5 million people installed it and used it regularly. The researchers studied what happened over the ensuing months. About 560,000 app users tested positive for COVID-19, resulting in the system issuing 1.7 million close contact warnings.

The warnings worked. Using a model that considered the timing of notifications, the percentage of people who quarantined after being warned of a contact, and the efficacy of quarantining on slowing the spread of the infection, the researchers estimated that for every 1% of the population using the app, the total number of cases averted increased by 0.8%. The researchers also compared the spread of COVID in 338 local jurisdictions to usage of the contact tracing app. There were some tricky demographic correlations to sift out, but nonetheless, the study concluded that local per capita infection rates were “strongly and robustly associated with differences in app use.”

The bottom line? The researchers say 100,000 to 900,000 COVID infections were averted by the app during a time when 1.9 million cases were reported. In a country where 4.4 million cases have led to 128,000 deaths, that implies 3,000 to 27,000 lives were saved.

“The surest ways to increase the effectiveness of the programme are to increase uptake, and to provide material support to individuals undergoing isolation and quarantine,” the study concluded. “Special efforts may be needed to reach underserved communities.”

Aaron Pressman


It's not dark yet, but it's getting there. The wheels have really come off the bus of overvalued, overhyped stocks from last year and early in 2021. Just to mention a few, Palantir is down 28% over the past month, Tesla lost 25%, Snowflake is off 21%, and Zoom is down 15%. The knock-on effect is that companies desperately wanting to become overhyped, overvalued stocks can't do it and initial public offerings are starting to get pulled, Bloomberg reports.

I've still got the scars that the sun didn't heal. Elsewhere on Wall Street, first quarter reports continued to pour in. Bumble's conservative outlook for the next quarter sent its stock tumbling 14% on Thursday. DoorDash tripled revenue to $1.1 billion and its stock jumped 8% in premarket trading on Friday. And Airbnb's revenue rose 5% to $887 million, better than analysts expected. Its stock was about unchanged on Friday morning.

Put that on your blockchain and smoke it. It may have started as a joke but no one's laughing anymore. Ok, yeah, some people are still chuckling about the rise of dogecoin. But newly public crypto exchange Coinbase will take growth where it can find it. CEO Brian Armstrong says the exchange will begin trading in the favored token of Shiba Inus everywhere within six to eight weeks.

Thought I'd died and gone to haven. Rival exchange Binance is getting some unwanted attention. The Justice Department and Internal Revenue Service are investigating whether the company, incorporated in the Cayman Islands, has somehow been involved in money laundering and tax cheating.

Slamming the brakes. Meanwhile, "the dogefather" himself backed away from his other token of choice. Tesla CEO Elon Musk was shocked, shocked to find that gambling was going on at Rick's—sorry, that bitcoin mining used a lot of electricity and generated lots of pollution. So Tesla will no longer accept bitcoin from car buyers. Evil hackers, though, evil hackers will still accept your bitcoin. The owners of the Colonial Pipeline paid almost $5 million in cryptocurrency to the group known as DarkSide to get their critical infrastructure back online.

Pay for say. At Discord, the preferred chat platform of video gamers everywhere, they are also looking for new revenue opportunities. The app will add a feature allowing users to sell tickets to virtual events held on Discord. That's similar to Twitter's premium audio events on Spaces and the payments feature Clubhouse rolled out last month.

A whole lotta crunching. The U.S. government may want to spend $50 billion to aid local chipmaking efforts, but South Korea wants to do even more. The Korean government unveiled a plan to spend $450 billion over the next decade to encourage its already thriving semiconductor industry.

Shredded. I know the conventional wisdom is that there is no way Epic Games will defeat Apple in court, but they sure are getting their licks in. On Thursday, lawyers for Epic absolutely destroyed Apple expert witness and UPenn professor Lorin Hitt after he testified that it was no big deal to play a mobile game via a web browser. Turned out, it was a mess and some of the games he had said were available off the iPhone didn't even exist on the web. Even Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers piled on. “It looked pretty difficult given the examples you provided,” she noted.

Attention to the problem. MIT's six-year-old Solve initiative tries to encourage the development of budding technological solutions addressing major global issues. Previous challenges doled out small grants to efforts to protect local ecosystems and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, Solve is accepting applications for its anti-racism program. Examples include tools to improve access to fair credit, provide alternatives to biased facial recognition systems, and minimize human and algorithmic bias. Apply by June 16 if you have an idea.


Sometimes the spread of disinformation aids a particular political cause or national propaganda effort. But sometimes, disinformation is spread to make money. The Associated Press investigated how anti-vaccine messages are helping generate tens of millions of dollars for the purveyors of this particularly dangerous stream of falsehoods.

“This is a disinformation industry,” said Dorit Reiss, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, who specializes in vaccine policy. Reiss said that unlike other multi-level marketing businesses, in which products are sold through low-level sub-sellers, the anti-vaccination industry is sustained by grassroots activists.

“They have many, many passionate believers that serve as sales people of the misinformation on the ground,” she said. “For the top, it’s a product. For the people below, they passionately believe it. They’re very sincere. And it comes across.”


A few great long reads I came across this week:

Serfing the web: The new rules of the “creator economy” (The Economist)
Social-media platforms used to get most of their content for free. That dynamic is changing.

How China turned a prize-winning iPhone hack against the Uyghurs (MIT Technology Review)
An attack that targeted Apple devices was used to spy on China’s Muslim minority—and US officials claim it was developed at the country’s top hacking competition.

‘It’s Not Quite Like Riding a Bike’: Pilots Get Ready to Fly Again (New York Times)
As airlines ramp up service, pilots who have been furloughed or laid off need to be retrained in everything from dealing with the control tower to “volcanic ash” scenarios.

Inside the mysterious world of missing sports memorabilia (ESPN)
We've all misplaced something–car keys, wallets, a W-2 from last year. But what about misplacing something worth millions that has incredible historical significance? Well, welcome to one of the stranger corners of the booming sports memorabilia market.


Alibaba calls its $2.8 billion antitrust fine a ‘one-time impact’—but the risk of more regulation lingers By Yvonne Lau

Can you buy crypto in your 401(k) or IRA? By Ben Carlson

Black women are more entrepreneurial than white men By Marco Quiroz-Gutierrez

Video game trade show E3 opens virtual doors to all players next month By Chris Morris

The Supreme Court of Facebook By Aron Solomon

The soda startup shaking up the market By Rachel King

(Some of these stories require a subscription to access. Thank you for supporting our journalism.)


My love of beautiful libraries is no secret to Data Sheet readers. The latest stunning rethinking of the book lending institution comes to us from Haiku, China. The new, small library is known as the Cloudscape of Haikou after its flowing, white concrete form. The interior is just as jaw-dropping. Hope you find a way to lose yourself in a book or other diversion of your choice and have a great weekend.

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