Updated: Nov 9, 2020
Written By: Chirag Patel
Contributor: Prashant Patel
The world is facing one of the worst pandemic in the history. COVID-19 has reportedly killed more than 346K people and 5.5 million people have been diagnosed with the virus, as of May 26, 2020, but it is nowhere near its end. According to WHO, the coronavirus might never go away and it may become just another endemic virus in our communities. Given the situation, a vaccine to prevent the spread of COVID-19 seems like the only hope.
As the race to a vaccine continues, there is a growing debate and push back on whether the government should reopen states or extend the lockdown. It’s easy to empathize with both sides of the viewpoint as the pandemic has had an immediate effect on people’s lives and livelihoods on both sides. The solution to this dilemma points to the one industry that has been the driving force for almost the last two decades: technology. To be more precise, it is steeped in software and AI (Artificial Intelligence). Going forward I will attempt to justify my solution which will minimize individual reactions. As you read this, it is important to keep in mind that this paper aims to point to a solution, while not delving into the implications on the partisanship of the government, even though the implementation process requires the involvement of the government. I will also not delve into the accuracy of the testing and reporting of mortality rates, as the goal here is to present a viable solution rather than to question the nature of the data available.
To understand this solution, I will break it down in terms of assumptions, solution, data handling, oversight, and dissemination of this project.
It is inevitable that the economy opens up, otherwise it is bound to have irreparable consequences to the lives and livelihoods of people. At the same time, it is also equally important to take individual responsibility to be a part of the solution rather than the problem by following safety guidelines.
Until a vaccine is found, we need to be aware of who is infected with the virus and what is our interaction with them. This can be done by contact tracing. There are two sides to the argument and it is important and easy to understand both. We do not need to go in detail as there are many sources that can advocate for either side; however, to preface, below are the two viewpoints.
Country and Non-Essential Businesses Stay Closed
If the country and its businesses stay closed, the economy and/or workforce is going to take a hit that it may never recover from. This has and will continue to lead to loss of jobs and decrease in work hours, ultimately affecting the livelihood of people.
An important study that examines the social costs of the 2008 banking crisis and the economic recession it created has been published. The analysis, carried out by Carlos Nordt and colleagues at the University of Zurich, explored the link between increases in rates of unemployment and suicide. They attribute 45,000 – or one in five – suicides a year worldwide to unemployment, with a further 5,000 deaths caused by the economic crisis.
Country and Non-Essential Businesses Open up
If we open up the country, we will experience another spike in hospitalizations. The “Second wave” is predicted to have a larger influx of patients than the first one, potentially leading to an increase in mortality.
Studies show that mortality rate of COVID-19 is around 1%. This number is bound to get more accurate as more testing is implemented.
COVID-19 has a high infection rate.
Best way to understand the spread is by testing.
Social distancing helps slow the spread of the virus.
Virus affects some demographics more than others.
Testing is widely and readily available across the country.
Knowledge of the virus concentration helps us understand which hot spots to avoid.
Appropriate PPE will be available and provided at public place, if it is required to enter the premises.
Individuals are using proper PPE while being in public, where necessary.
Individuals tested positive with COVID-19 will be more proactive in using their PPE, to decrease the spread of the virus.
Smart cleanliness practices point to a larger growth of the disinfectant and personal protective equipment industry.
Knowledge is power and the power of making best decisions of individuals for themselves and their families lies in the hands of each person, given they are made aware of their options. We have to trust individuals to make the right choice, given the knowledge of the virus, its concentration, and its potential impact.
The key point that we are missing in helping people make the right decision is knowledge. Luckily, there’s a diversity in methods of handling the coronavirus across different countries. One of the best examples to look at is South Korea; they have been heavily testing and tracking individuals for COVID-19. Countries like India and Australia have also launched apps to help track COVID-19 individuals who tested positive and allow individuals in their proximity to be aware of potential infection to self. Contact tracing seems to be to correct method to get the proper knowledge. As you saw mentioned in the assumptions, we expect the testing to be available readily to everyone in the coming weeks to months.
Arguments for Contact Tracing
It helps identify individuals who have been tested positive for COVID-19.
It also helps the government track the movement patterns of individuals with COVID-19 and identify hotspots.
Arguments against Contact Tracing:
This would be a violation of privacy for individuals.
It gives power in the hands of the government and/or the private sector, depending on who implements it, to monitor individuals with COVID-19.
If local or state government decides to implement forced quarantine for infected individuals, it will be a violation of an individuals’ freedom.
The numbers from South Korea clearly indicate that contact tracing is the next logical step to limit the spread of the virus. However, we need to have a method in which it doesn’t infringe on an individual’s privacy or violate their rights. Rather than looking at this like a binary or win-lose solution, we need to look at it from a form of compromise where both side are protected while gaining pertinent knowledge to slow the spread.
Create a smartphone app [or create an add-on to an existing app such as Maps] that allows the testers, to input verifiable, tested information on their test results. With GPS enabled it will be feasible to track the individuals’ travel pattern and identify hot spots (see Figure 2 and 3). With BT (Bluetooth) enabled, it will allow individuals to see if they have been in contact with a person who tested positive for COVID-19 or at higher risk (See figure 2 and 4).
Every individual’s identity will be a randomized alphanumeric combination.
The data from the testing will be processed in a server where the individual’s identity will be encrypted to protect their privacy.
Prior to traveling to a public place, the individuals will be able to gauge the concentration of other individuals, who tested positive for COVID-19 in that public place, within the last 14 days. This allows them to make a decision on when they want to visit that area.
As individuals proceed throughout their non-quarantined routine, the BT passively (without forcing a connection) pings to devices around it for other BT signals. This will allow an individual to know if they have been in the proximity of someone who has been tested positive for COVID-19. See figures 2, 3, and 4 below for complete diagram of individual interaction, GPS location usage, and BT interaction.
I/O AND DATA HANDLING
The solution needs to be something that satisfies both sides of the concerns for contact tracing.
Privacy is a major and justifiable concern for individuals against contact tracing. Again, to continue progress on this issue, there needs to be a compromise that satisfies this argument as well. For this to happen, tracking and monitoring system for everyone using the app needs to be “closed”. By “closed” I mean the individual’s identity cannot be extracted from the system, app, or server. The individual’s identity or even the phone’s identity will be assigned an alphanumeric combination. The identity will be relayed to the server and any Bluetooth users in the proximity, using end-to-end encryption; therefore, whether it is in the server or proximity BT interaction, the identity is always concealed.  Only the doctors or testers will be permitted to input the data into the app of individuals. The data from the individuals will then be collected, managed, processed, and shared on the app by a “closed” AI algorithm. The AI will have a one way input only for the addition of parameters, if necessary. The job of the AI and app is to provide individuals with knowledge of hot spot concentrations and proximity alerts of confirmed COVID-19 patients. The AI will also provide an output of additional data that may prove relevant to the understanding of the virus.
The AI-program will also have a deadline. According to Dr. Fauci, on March 4, 2020, the development and implementation of a vaccine will not be ready in one year (Mar 4, 2020). See timeline below to understand vaccine creation.
Vaccine Creation Timeline
Is the vaccine immunogenic: 6 weeks
Phase 1 trial (45 individuals): 3-4 months
Phase 2 trials (100s to 1000s individuals): 12-16 months
Once a date for vaccine availability has been decided, the AI-program will be administered a deadline for 1-3 months after the creation of vaccine. Once the deadline has been reached, the individual data on all servers will be wiped. Prior to that the AI-program will export data, in accordance of the predetermined parameters, to Oversight (see next section) which will help researchers understand the nature and significance of the data. It is important to understand that this program will provide data devoid of the individual’s identity. The export will only supply data based on the decided, necessary parameters below. Keep in mind this data can and will be available for interpretation in a matter of daily, weekly, and monthly timestamps.
Body fat %
Now the final question: Who is in-charge of the program?
The AI-program managing committee or as I’ve eluded to the term “Oversight” will be in-charge of the implementation of the program. Oversight will consist of the following groups:
Local county government
Private companies developing the software
To ensure diversity of ideas:
3 large companies (> 500 employees).
3 small companies (< 500 employees).
Independent public opinion, decided by consensus.
Any external decisions of this AI-program shall be implemented on a majority vote, where all three groups get an equal weight.
It is very important for all the key stakeholders to understand the significance of the situation and their power. It might be a year or two before we have a successful vaccine and even then it is not guaranteed that the production numbers can reach a point where the vaccine can be made easily available to the general public, so it is very important for all the parties involved to take steps to stop the spread of COVID-19.
I would like to be clear that my field of expertise is Mechanical Engineering, not computer science; however, it takes a discussion or an idea from someone to get the conversation started. That is my attempt with this paper. The is not a complete solution, but rather this is a starting point of one we can build upon.
Now I can understand that the timeframe to create the system I’m proposing is a great challenge; however, with the technology, talent, and resources that our tech community and government has, we should be able to deliver this within 3-4 weeks. We know what’s at stake and pooling our top resources together, we can create such a solution which allows us to be alert to our status and status of individuals around us. When writing this paper, I have made assumptions that individuals will want to act safely in accordance to local, state, and federal guidelines in a public setting.
I have had this paper reviewed by my peers inside and outside the software field and I have concluded that this is a feasible solution. Of course, when we get into the details of its creation and implementation, changes will have to be made for most plausible, efficient, and effective execution. I ask the tech community and government to take this idea seriously as this is a plausible solution for tracking COVID-19 in individuals while still protecting their privacy. My research of other countries’ response has also helped validate the feasibility of this idea.
In the coming days, weeks, and months, I will continue my research and update this paper on my website as I learn more about making this a more feasible and efficient solution. The updates can be found on www.beyondthinktank.com .
1. Nordt, Carlos, et al. “Modelling Suicide and Unemployment: a Longitudinal Analysis Covering 63 Countries, 2000–11.” Modelling Suicide and Unemployment: a Longitudinal Analysis Covering 63 Countries, 2000–11, The Lancet Psychiatry, 10 Feb. 2015, www.thelancet.com/journals/lanpsy/article/PIIS2215-0366(14)00118-7/fulltext.
2. “Dr. Fauci Explains The Timeline And Risks Of Creating A COVID-19 Vaccine | MSNBC.” Dr. Fauci Explains The Timeline And Risks Of Creating A COVID-19 Vaccine | MSNBC, YouTube, 26 Mar. 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZrWAqpPGAxQ.
 Currently, doctors are the only ones who know the true identity and results of the tested individuals, unless otherwise revealed by the individual.