As England and Wales prepare to unveil their coronavirus contact tracing app, German draws the first, less enthusiastic conclusions about the effectiveness of fighting the pandemic with smartphones.
One hundred days after its launch, German authorities acknowledged that IT disruptions and poor communication channels with laboratories made the country’s Corona-Warn-App “one more tool out of many” than Covid-19 cures all.
German application, that is get compliments from as far away as Westminster after launching on July 16, having been downloaded 18.4 million times in Germany and 400,000 times overseas at the start of this week – more than any similar app in any other EU member state combined.
About 1.2 million test results have been submitted to patients via their smartphones.
Twenty-two percent of Germany’s population of around 83 million have downloaded the app on their phones, a major step towards uptake of 33% that the government’s expert advisory panel announced as the minimum requirements for contact tracing technology. to do its job.
Earlier in the summer, many health officials had targeted a 60% retrieval rate for applications, based on a University of Oxford study released in April, although Telecom’s chief officer, Timotheus Höttges, said on Wednesday that a recent study showed 15% use was sufficient to lower mortality. and coronavirus infection.
The number of people actively using the app tends to be less, however: some users will delete the app again, while others turn off the Bluetooth signal necessary for the technology to work.
Using download figures from Apple’s App Store and Google Play, Telekom said it believed the corona virus application had 15 million active users.
The German app development phase was accompanied by intense discussions around data privacy which resulted in the government turning to a decentralized model, which uses Bluetooth technology to anonymously record the proximity of other smartphones to installed apps.
As a result, Germany’s central disease control agency, the Robert Koch Institute, lacks data to determine how effective the app is. For example, there are no official figures on how many people have been warned they had the virus.
Accredited Laboratories in Medicine (ALM), the largest association representing laboratories in Germany that perform tests, cites 3-6% of analyzed tests that are taken explicitly because people have been warned by the app.
The app does not automatically send an alert to the contact if the user tests positive, but the user must press a button to do so. On Wednesday, the health minister, Jens Spahn, said nearly 5,000 people had used the app to alert their contacts – only half of them have received a positive test result through the app, and only about 10% of all new infections in Germany since then. launching.
As well as only working on newer smartphone operating systems, experts found app contact tracing via Bluetooth to function unreliable on buses, trains, and subways, where the risk of infection is higher than in the open air. Other users have complained about the error message that won’t go away after uninstalling and reinstalling the app.
For applications to work smoothly, laboratories must be able to enter their test results directly into the application. But as of Monday, 20% of German laboratories that can perform PCR tests are still unable to do so, because their software is not compatible with the application’s digital infrastructure, developed by Telekom and tech giant SAP.
“We invest a lot of effort in addressing concerns around data privacy, but less in knowing how test results find their way to your smartphone,” said Axel Oppold-Soda, an ALM spokesman.
Oppold-Soda said he still believed the coronavirus application could make “a very important contribution to contact tracing efforts”. However, the view about the effectiveness of the application among the wider community is less optimistic.
A recent study by the Technical University of Munich found that 51% of those questioned did not believe the application would change the development of the pandemic. In June, before the launch, only 41% expressed the same opinion.
• This article was amended on 23 September 2020 to correct that England and Wales, not England, are preparing to unveil the Corona virus contact tracing application.