Covid-19 coronavirus early-warning app: Govt close to deal with NZ’s Elarm

The Auckland-based maker of an early-warning Covid-19 app could be just two weeks from closing a deal with the Ministry of Health, its maker says.

Elarm was developed by Auckland company Datamine. The app can be loaded to a Google Android wearable such as a Fitbit, or an Apple Watch, and used to monitor for a slightly elevated temperature, heart palpitations, subtle changes to exercise recovery rates and, where it’s supported by a smartwatch such as the new Apple Watch 6, oxygen saturation.

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Those are all early signs of Covid-19 (or another illness) that a user might suffer during the first stages of the illness – a key 48-hour phase when they are infections but unaware they have coronavirus.

The Ministry of Health has acknowledged it is in “active talks” with Datamine, which could reach some sort of conclusion by the end of this month. The Herald understands the deal could involve border workers and returning New Zealanders or others emerging from MIQ.

Datamine founder Paul O’Connor recently told the Herald his company already had customer trials overseas, including with a major US hospital group and a multinational mining company – who couldn’t be named for confidentiality reasons.

However, the mining company, US-based Newcrest – the world’s largest gold producer – recently chose to go public, telling a trade publication that 8000 of its workers could now use Elarm.

O’Connor would not disclose total customers but said Elarm was now used in 53 countries, with the US easily its largest market. Numbers were growing by 20 per cent per week.

Earlier, the Datamine head said he was considering spinning off Elarm, and would seek to raise around $3 million in the process.

Today, he said that initiative was on the back-burner. In fact, now that the software has almost “washed its face” (brought in enough revenue to cover costs), O’Connor is considering giving it away free as a public good.

Local academic response has been mixed.

Epidemiologist Michael Baker told the Herald that from an infectious diseases perspective, Elarm had “great potential to make a real difference, not just for Covid-19 but other infectious diseases too”.

The expert added: “With Covid in New Zealand in the future one of the areas which is going to become increasingly important is monitoring the people in quarantine and people crossing the borders.

“This is where this technology might be useful and might issue people with devices if they don’t already have them, that can allow this app to monitor their physiological functions for a period.”

But Dr Andrew Chen, a researcher with Auckland University’s Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures, said more information and assurances were needed over privacy if the Ministry of Health was to get real-time or periodic access to people’s Elarm results (Elarm’s T&C’s say that users agree to share information with the organisation paying for their account).

“A lot of people will be wary about ‘the government’ being able to monitor their vital signs, so explaining the privacy protections should be front-of-mind alongside explaining the cool technology,” Chen told the Herald.

O’Connor responded, “Each person’s data is held in a HIPPA-compliant Health Vault.They own their data. It’s privacy-complaint and secure.” (HIPPA or the US Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) governns a set of privacy and security standards created by the US. Department of Health and Human Services).

In terms of the potential Ministry of Health contract, O’Connor says, “No individual real-time health data would be shared.”

“The user is the owner of their health information.

“When someone signs up for Elarm Guardian – which enables employers or MoH to view the results – they can allow or disable the four-hourly model results to be considered by health professionals.”

In the case of Newcrest Mining, only people who can access the Elarm model results are registered nurses.

“In the case of MoH, there is no difference between someone taking a test in isolation and the MoH viewing their test results. The MoH should not and does not share personal health information,” O’Connor said.

The Ministry of Health has been engaging with Privacy Commissioner John Edwards over technology solutions deployed, and being potentially deployed, in the war against the virus.

In terms of overall performance, O’Connor stresses that Elarm “is not a Covid test”. The app collects data about changes in your biological state – then lets you know so you can consult a medical professional to see if your have coronavirus or another ailment. “It’s not a replacement for a Covid test, it’s a real-time complement,” he says.

As long ago as June last year, ACT leader David Seymour pushed for the government to support Elarm – a call he renewed today.

O’Connor was more diplomatic, saying he knew the ministry had a lot on its plate.

“They’ve got to deal with the live situation in Auckland. They’re very busy, but hopefully we’ll have news in a couple of weeks,” he said.

Datamine is well-established Auckland company that sifts through large amounts of data.

O’Connor says in February last year, clients like Air New Zealand and Flight Centre began to flag that the coronavirus outbreak could be a lot worse than many were anticipating.

O’Connor realised his company could bring its data analytics skills to bear – and a prototype version of Elarm was released in March, and a beta (trial version) by June.

Elarm is now available on Apple and Google’s app stores, with a US$4.50 per month charge for analysing data collected by your wearable.

O’Connor says it can currently detect Covid-19-like symptoms with a 70 per cent success rate and rising, thanks to analysing thousands of data points, developed in collaboration with medical clinicians from New Zealand (including Counties Manukau DHB critical care specialist Dr Brett Gerrard), Australia, United Kingdom, Europe and the US (including rapid testing specialist Dr Todd Malan).

Data collected by a smartwatch or fitness band is sent to an Elarm app on the user’s smartphone that crunched the data. AI and machine learning was being used to refine the model all the time.

He says Elarm has caught “several dozen” Covid-19 cases overseas. Trials have also involved feeding in data from the wearables of people who were Covid-positive. He sees Elarm on track for an accuracy rate above 80 per cent.

With vaccine programmes now underway,it’s possible to see the light at the end of the Covid-19 tunnel.

But O’Connor anticipates that won’t be for some time.

And he adds that Elarm could be readily adapted for outbreaks to come.

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