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Study: Apple, Google's contact tracing system saved thousands of lives in UK

The study specifically focuses on the NHS app and its impact across England and Wales.

Published onMay 14, 2021

Apple iPhone 11 vs Google Pixel 4 in hand
  • A new study suggests that Google and Apple’s exposure notification API may have saved thousands of lives.
  • As many as 8,000 people in England and Wales may have averted infection thanks to the API and the NHS app.

Google and Apple’s exposure notification API, or GAEN, is now employed by a slew of Covid-19 tracking apps. The API uses Bluetooth to contact trace and alert users to possible virus exposure, potentially saving their and others’ lives.

The two tech heavyweights launched the API in June 2020, but its efficacy since launch remained unclear. Now, a new study published in Nature (h/t: Benedict Evans) with contributions by 13 authors aims to explore this. The research focuses on England and Wales and the effectiveness of the NHS’s app in particular.

Contact tracing apps are saving lives

Although there’s plenty to read, there is one key takeaway. The research concludes that the NHS app may have saved the lives of between 4,200 and 8,700 users in the region. To date, the United Kingdom has seen more than 128,000 deaths in total.

As for cases averted, the study suggests every percentage point increase in app usage resulted in a 0.79% reduction in cases. “Our analysis suggests a large number of COVID-19 cases were averted by contact tracing via the NHS app, ranging from approximately 100,000 to 900,000 depending on methodological details,” the study adds.

The NHS app’s integration with testing was also noted as a key feature, as “tests ordered through the app trigger actions automatically, without requiring the user to enter their result in the app.” This speeds up contact tracing.

The study also theorizes it isn’t the app’s functionality alone that contributed to its efficacy. It suggests that those who install the app may maintain a greater distance from others than they otherwise would have done, aware that the app monitors distance and could later advise quarantine.”

Notably, since September, Apple and Google have also made app-free Covid-19 exposure notifications available on their devices.

Smartphone use is already global, and thus privacy-preserving contact tracing apps should be further integrated into the public health toolkit,” the study concludes.

Do you have your region’s COVID-19 contact tracing app installed? Let us know in the comments below.

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