Early COVID-19 detection app ëlarm to be trialled at border, ACT says Government slow to adopt

A wearable technology application which alerts users to signs they are becoming unwell before the onset of symptoms and could detect COVID-19 early will be trialled by border workers.

But the ACT Party says it's taken too long to adopt the technology it has been advocating the Government to use since at least June last year.

The ëlarm technology, created by Auckland-based developers Datamine and which is being used by companies in more than 50 countries, connects to wearable devices and uses artificial intelligence to inform users about early physiological changes that may indicate they are becoming unwell - days before they experience symptoms. It could therefore pick up signs of COVID-19 early, allowing for quick isolation. 

The Ministry of Health announced on Thursday that it has organised a month-long trial of the application with up to 500 border workers able to volunteer to take part. 

After they install the app on their smart device - Datamine is providing devices to those who don't have them - the workers will receive regular email reminders and alerts throughout the day and can check their own health information. A personalised health baseline is created for each user based on their data history and all data will be private to the individual participants. 

"Contact tracing is at the heart of our COVID-19 response and it's essential we find and treat people who might have been exposed to this difficult virus before it has a chance to take hold in our communities," said Shayne Hunter, the ministry's deputy director-general of data and digital.

"There's no single fix for COVID-19 so it's important we use the tools and technologies at our disposal to give contact tracers and health workers a good head start. We already have good tools such as the NZ COVID Tracer app and QR code posters, and the Ministry of Health is investigating other technologies that might provide further support for our contact tracing."

Hunter said if ëlarm lives up to its potential, it could "provide early notification to our critical border workforce if they're becoming unwell". 

"That means they can take appropriate action such as self-isolating and being tested for COVID-19," he said.

"Even though our border workers are vaccinated, the reality is that some people will still feel unsure about the increased risk of exposure to COVID-19 from working on the border. We want to really support this essential work by giving people good tools to monitor their own health to keep themselves, their whānau and all of New Zealand safe and healthy."

ACT's David Seymour has long advocated for ëlarm to be adopted by the Government and has used it personally. On Thursday, he said it "shouldn’t have taken 10 months for the Government to take the idea seriously".

"This decision is a small step towards a COVID-19 response that is more open to working with the private sector and more willing to augment its response with better technology."

In June last year, Seymour said someone entering New Zealand could use the application before and after arriving. 

"A negative result would all but guarantee that the person was not infected. A positive result at any time after entering the country would allow a person to be rapidly isolated," he said at the time.  

University of Otago epidemiologist Michael Baker last year said it was "encouraging" that New Zealand was producing innovations "in the area of new surveillance tools for tracking people who are potentially infected by COVID-19 and other infectious agents".

"There are many potentially useful applications for this technology. More field testing is obviously needed with this tool to assess its effectiveness and ensure it is applied to the most pressing and relevant problems," he said.

A spokesperson told Newshub on Thursday that the Ministry of Health had been in contact with ëlarm since June about "how their app, along with other technologies, might be used in New Zealand’s response to COVID-19".

"As with all new technologies, the Ministry of Health must monitor emerging research to ensure there is clinical evidence to back up any claims on the effectiveness of new technologies.

"The Ministry must also take a range of other factors into consideration, including the privacy of any individuals, what other technologies are available, how the technology should be rolled out and if there are any risks involved in its use."

Speaking to The AM Show last June, Datamine founder Paul O'Connor said ëlarm would be of benefit to vulnerable people, front-line workers and businesses wanting to operate safely. 

It was targeted to an overseas market at the time as COVID-19 had been mostly eliminated from New Zealand. 

"For countries hit harder than New Zealand, ëlarm will help to slow the spread of the virus, because people can self-isolate and, if necessary, seek medical treatment before they infect many others," he said.

"For instance, in the course of our research we talked to several people in the United States who mentioned they were anxious about going home to vulnerable loved ones. We know that ëlarm can lower that fear considerably."