Could smartwatches detect COVID-19? Scientists think so

PALO ALTO, Calif. (KGO) -- A valuable tool in the fight against the novel coronavirus could be one you already own.

In two separate studies, researchers at Stanford University and UCSF are now looking into whether or not wearable devices can help detect early signs of viral infections.

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"We think these smartwatches are going to be super powerful for telling you when you're ill, even before you're symptomatic because your heart rate goes up, your skin temperature can change, your blood oxygen can change without you realizing it," said Dr. Michael Snyder, a professor at Stanford School of Medicine.

Stanford is recruiting participants for its wearables data study to find out if information from devices such as a Fitbit or an Apple Watch can be used to track diseases like COVID-19. They're currently looking for wearable device users who have had a confirmed or suspected case of COVID-19, or have been exposed to somebody who has been known or suspected of having it. They're also looking for those who are at a higher risk of exposure, such as healthcare workers or grocery store employees.

"Your smartphone is going to be your most important health device in the future because it's going to be collecting all this data," said Snyder. "We have a dashboard that collects all the information and will relay these warnings back to people. We intend to make that all open source, meaning it will be available to everyone."

San Francisco-based Oura Health is sponsoring research at UCSF to study whether data collected by its wearable ring, combined with daily symptom surveys, can help build an algorithm to identify patterns of COVID-19 onset, progression, and recovery. The company's technology typically helps users understand their health by improving their sleep.

"We're seeing lots of different efforts, lots of different companies in technology come together to better protect people, and we couldn't be more proud to be participating in that right now," said Oura Health chief executive officer Harpreet Rai.

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More than 40,000 people are involved in the Oura/UCSF study, including 3,000 healthcare workers who have already been provided with the ring, which can track a person's pulse, movement, and temperature. Results are expected to be released this summer.

Rai added, "This technology can be helpful in letting people know that they may be getting sick ahead of time, so they can get tested, and frankly keep others in their community, in their offices, and frankly, their family and friends safe."

As for the Stanford project, researchers are hoping to fine-tune their algorithms over the next two weeks with the goal of making the program live within the next couple of months.

"The next steps are to roll it out to everyone if we can," said Snyder. "It's not going to be perfect... no method is, but it should be helpful in many cases."

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