The battle against COVID-19 is raging on as researchers look into the many facets involved in prevention, detection, treatment, and vaccines for the virus. One of the avenues being explored is utilising fitness trackers and smart watches to see if the data from wearables can detect illnesses like COVID-19 and the flu before they present symptoms.
Fitbit joined the fight earlier this year when it announced that it would be conducting its own study via the Fitbit app for users in the US and Canada; the early findings are in, and it's promising news!
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Following May's initial announcement, 100,000 Fitbit users took part in the study, and over the subsequent two months, 1,000 positive COVID-19 cases were reported. The early findings – which have been submitted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal – suggest that the wearable can detect nearly 50% of cases one day before users reported symptoms, with 70% specificity.
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As the blog post points out, this is important with a virus like COVID-19 so that those infected can self-isolate and get the appropriate treatment rather than unknowingly spreading it during this stage.
Interestingly, the metrics tracked (breathing rate, resting heart rate, and heart rate variability) offered the best quality data at night, when participants were asleep and the body is at rest.
Early physiological signs of disease detected by the Fitbit include elevated resting heart and breathing rate, as well as a decrease in heart rate variability (HRV), which means the beat-to-beat variation in the pulse is more consistent. In some cases, these indicators were present almost a week before the participants reported symptoms.
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Additional data offered insight into the link between certain symptoms and the severity of the cases, and are in line with what other researchers and health officials are discovering; for example, being older, being male, or having a high BMI can increase the chances of "severe outcomes" from the virus.
Shortness of breath and vomiting are symptoms most likely to result in a case so severe that hospitalisation is required, whereas a sore throat and stomachache are unlikely to require something as extreme. Fatigue was the most common symptom, which presented in 72% of the participants who had the virus.
Fitbit's next step is to work with research partners to "validate the technology" before reaching out to the necessary regulators to figure out the best way to package this for consumers.