Can smartwatches detect COVID early? Studies are positive

By Rahul Vaimal, Associate Editor
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Fitbit and other wearable devices commonly associated with exercise are being examined as ways to detect people who are possibly COVID-19 infected before symptoms occur as they can transmit the disease unknowingly.

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Researchers say that changes in respiratory and heart rate and other biometrics that are constantly monitored by these devices can possibly warn about the early stages of virus infection. This can help an otherwise healthy-looking person to self-isolate themselves and seek a COVID-19 diagnostic test.

Professor Michael Snyder of Stanford University School of Medicine says, “when you get ill, even before you know it, your body starts changing, your heart rate goes up.”

Stanford researchers are among many groups looking at how wearable exercise devices such as the Fitbit or Apple Watch can provide an early alert. For the research, Snyder’s team recruited 5,000 people and analyzed historical smartwatch data from 31 users who tested COVID-19 positive.

Almost 80% out of those 31 individuals had data on their wearable devices that suggested possible infection at the time or before symptoms began. In an average of three days, wearable devices gathered the signals of infection early.

In one instance, Snyder’s team found that a smartwatch was able to detect the first signal of possible COVID-19 infection even nine days before more apparent symptoms were reported.

The study is, hence, opening up a powerful system that can substantially reduce the spread of the virus from person to person. The individuals who have possible symptoms, according to the detection on their devices, can stay at home, away from people and avoid infecting others unknowingly.

More than 15 million people have been infected by the new coronavirus, killing more than 600,000 people worldwide since it was first detected in January. Early signs of the infection include fever, cough and loss of smell.

With the sales of their key offerings declining in the current scenario, big tech companies hope to offset it by pushing their wearable devices with the promise of transforming the customer’s lifestyle. Apple Watch was seen as the industry’s biggest success, with Google deciding last year to purchase Fitbit for $2.1 billion in hopes of keeping up.

Fitbit has informed that it is conducting its own studies to understand the potential of its devices to detect the early symptoms of COVID-19. The study involves 100,000 individuals in the United States and Canada, including 900 individuals who are infected with the virus.
Device makers are also researching potential early detection of COVID-19 infection in professional athletes wearing custom fitness trackers, such as Whoop, a wristband, and Oura, a ring worn on your finger.