Use and development of software for COVID-19 pandemic mitigation

Source: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Various kinds of software have been developed and used for mitigating the COVID-19 pandemic. These include mobile apps for contact tracing and notifications about infection risks, digital passports verifying one's vaccination status, software for enabling – or improving the effectiveness of – lockdowns and social distancing in general, Web software for the creation of related information services, and software for the research and development for COVID-19 mitigation.

Contact tracing

A contact tracing app

COVID-19 apps are mobile software applications for digital contact tracing during the COVID-19 pandemic, i.e. the process of identifying persons ("contacts") who may have been in contact with an infected individual.

Numerous applications have been developed or proposed, with official government support in some territories and jurisdictions. Several frameworks for building contact tracing apps have been developed. Privacy concerns have been raised, especially about systems that are based on tracking the geographical location of app users.

Less intrusive alternatives include the use of Bluetooth signals to log a user's proximity to other cellphones. On 10 April 2020, Google and Apple jointly announced that they would integrate functionality to support such Bluetooth-based apps directly into their Android and iOS operating systems. India's COVID-19 tracking app Aarogya Setu became the world's fastest growing application, beating Pokémon Go with 50 million users in the first 13 days of its release. (Full article...)

Design

Many different contact tracing apps have been developed. Design decisions such as those relating to the users' privacy and data-storage and -security vary between the apps. In most cases the different apps are not interoperable which may reduce their effectiveness when multiple apps are used within a country or when people travel across national borders. It has been suggested that building a single open-source app (or a small set of such) that is usable by all, ensures interoperability, and is developed as a robust app everyone is putting their energy into – for a bundled work force, standardized optimal design and combined maximum innovative capacity, would have been preferable to such highly parallel development.[1][2]

Use and effectiveness

An unincentivized and always entirely voluntary use of such digital contact tracing apps by the public was found to be low[3][4][5] even if the apps are built to preserve privacy, leading to low usefulness of the software for pandemic mitigation as of April 2021. A lack of possible features and persistent, prevalent errors reduced their usefulness further.[6] Use of such an app in general or during specific times is in many or all cases not provable.

Check-in functionality

Some apps also allow "check-ins" that enable contact tracing and exposure notifications after entering public venues such as fitness centres.[7]

Digital vaccination certificates

Digital vaccine passports and vaccination certificates are and use software for verifying a person's coronavirus vaccination status.[4]

Such certificates may enable vaccinated persons to get access to events, buildings and services in the public such as airplanes, concert venues and health clubs[4] and travel across borders.[8] This may enable partial reopenings.[9][10] Lawrence Gostin stated that there is enormous economic and social incentive for such proof of vaccinations.[11]

Hurdles and ethical implications

COVID-19 vaccines are usually distributed based on infection risks and granting privileges based on vaccination-status certification has some ethical implications,[9] like any of the other mechanisms/factors by which society grants privileges to individuals. For instance, privileges based on vaccination-status may lead to people not at high risk of COVID-19 infection or of a severe prognosis of the disease to obtain a large share of the limited supply of vaccination doses (via society's mechanisms of finance) and the vaccinated people to be granted permissions that could be seen as "unfair" by unvaccinated people. Moreover, such certificates could require a set of tamper-proof, privacy-respecting, verifiable, authenticity-ensuring, data-validity-ensuring, secure digital certification technologies – robust digital signature cryptography-based software that may not exist yet. Furthermore, such privileging mechanisms may exacerbate inequality,[12] increase risks of deliberate infections or transmission,[8] and depend or increase dependence on inoculation preventing COVID-19 transmission which the WHO considers to still be an uncertainty.[13] The public health justification of avoiding preventable sickness or death of others[11] may not be shared or communicated effectively to significant parts of the population. A large share of elderly do not have smartphones which many digital vaccination certificates designs may rely on.[14][15][16]

Design

Several groups have stated that common standards are important and that a single common and optimal standard for each purpose would be best. As no adequate technical swift mechanisms for its collective design – or establishing firm consensus for it – exists, some teams are developing cross-compatible solutions.[4][10] Likewise, the design and development of such technologies is highly parallel, rather than collaborative, efficient and integrative. Governments often like to ensure data sovereignty.[15] According to some experts, national governments should have developed – or helped to develop – a standardized, secure, digital proof of vaccination earlier.[17] In the U.S. such digital certificates are being developed by the private sector, with a large number of different solutions being produced by small corporate teams and no vaccinations database being designed by state-funded organizations.[13][18] Development of many solutions may lead to a large number of security vulnerabilities and no highly robust, privacy-respecting, extendable, performant and interoperable software which, however, may be developed, improved or become a standard years after the large number of apps are published and used.[18] Saskia Popescu and Alexandra Phelan argue that "any moves to institute vaccine passports must be coordinated internationally".[16]

The WHO has established a – small and nonparticipative – "working group focused on establishing standards for a common architecture for a digital smart vaccination certificate to support vaccine(s) against COVID-19 and other immunizations".[12][19]

The COVID-19 Credentials Initiative hosted by Linux Foundation Public Health (LFPH) is a global initiative working to develop and deploy privacy-preserving, tamper-evident and verifiable credential certification projects based on the open standard Verifiable Credentials (VCs).[20][21][13]

Cybersecurity expert Laurin Weissinger argues that it's important for such software to be fully free and open source, to clarify concepts and designs timely, to have it penetration-tested by security experts and to communicate which and how data is collected and processed as such would be needed to build required trust.[22] Jenny Wanger, director of programs at the Linux Foundation, also contends that is essential for such software to be open source.[23] ACLU senior policy analyst Jay Stanley affirms this notion and warns that an "architecture that is not good for transparency, privacy, or user control" could set a "bad standard" for future apps and systems that host credentials.[14]

In Israel, Estonia and Iceland such passports are already being used.[15] In other places like New York pilot programs are being run.[17] Many other countries and unions are considering or planning for such passports and/or certificates.

Software for remote work, distance education, telemedicine, product delivery, eGovernment and videoconferencing

Websites

Screenshot of a template on English Wikipedia displaying a collection of articles related to the COVID-19 pandemic, as of 3 April 2021

Web software has been used to inform the public about the latest state of the pandemic. The wiki Wikipedia[24][25] and COVID-19 dashboards[26][27] were used widely for obtaining aggregated, integrated and reliable information about the pandemic.[citation needed]

The Wikimedia project Scholia provides a graphical interface around data in Wikidata – such as literature about a specific coronavirus protein – which may help with research, research-analysis, making data interoperable, automated applications, regular updates, and data-mining.[28][29]

A multitude of diverse websites were consulted by citizens proactively striving to learn which activities were allowed and which disallowed – such as the times during which curfews apply – which changed continuously throughout the pandemic and also varied by location.[citation needed]

A study found results from a German government-organized hackathon held via Internet-technologies to be "tangible".[30][31]

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a group of online archivists have used the open access PHP- and Linux-based shadow library Sci-Hub to create an archive of over 5000 articles about coronaviruses. They confirmed that making the archive openly accessible is currently illegal, but consider it a moral imperative.[32] Sci-Hub provides free full access for most scientific publications about the COVID-19 pandemic.[citation needed]

In addition, multiple legacy scientific publishers have created open access portals, including the Cambridge University Press,[33] the Europe branch of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition,[34] The Lancet,[35] John Wiley and Sons,[36] and Springer Nature.[37]

Medical software

GNU Health

GNU Health patient main screen as of 2013

The open source, Qt-[38][39] and GTK-based GNU Health has a variety of default features already built in that makes it useful during pandemics.[27] As the software is open source, it allows many different parties to pool efforts on an existing single integrated program – instead of different programs for different purposes or different clients and multiple programs for each purpose – to enhance its usefulness during the pandemic as well as adapting it to their needs. Already existing features include a way for the clinical information to be made available and get updated immediately in any health institution via the unique "Person Universal ID", lab test report templates and functionalities, functionality for digital signing and encryption of data as well as storage of medical records. Theoretically, the software could be used or modified to aid e.g. COVID-19 testing and research about COVID-19 as securely sharing anonymized patient treatments, medical history and individual outcomes – including by common primary care physicians – may speed up such research and clinical trials. The software has been considered as a possible backbone of a robust, sustainable public health infrastructure based on cooperation.[40]

Software for COVID-19 testing

In Bavaria, Germany a delay in communicating 44,000 test-results was caused by the lack of use or preparatory setup or development of required software.[41]

Vaccination management

Software is being used to manage to distribution of vaccines, which have to be kept cold, and to record which individuals already received a – and which – vaccination. A lack of use or preparatory setup or development of required software caused delays and other problems.[42]

Screening

In China, Web-technologies were used to screen and direct individuals to appropriate resources. In Taiwan, infrared thermal cameras were used in airports to rapidly detect individuals with fever.[43] Machine learning has been used for rapid diagnosis and risk prediction of COVID-19.[43]

Quarantining

Electronic monitoring hard- and software has been to ensure and verify infected individuals' adherence to quarantine. However, solutions based on mobile apps have been found to be insufficient.[43] Furthermore, various software designs may threaten civil liberties and infringe on privacy.[43]

Nextstrain

SARS-CoV-2 mutations graph clades on Nextstrain

Nextstrain is an open source platform for pathogen genomic data such as about viral evolution of SARS-CoV-2 and was used widely during the COVID-19 pandemic such as for research about novel variants of SARS-CoV-2.

Data sharing and copyright

In March 2021, a proposal backed by a large number of organizations and prominent researchers and experts and initiated mainly by organizations in India and South Africa, called the international authority World Trade Organization (WTO) to reduce copyright barriers to COVID-19 prevention, containment and treatment. In 2020, professor Sean Flynn, noted that "Only a minority of countries authorize sharing text and data mining databases between researchers needed for collaboration, including across borders."[44][45]

Vaccine production

Software has been used in leaks and industrial espionage of vaccine-related data.[46] Machine learning has been applied to improve vaccine productivity.[47]

Modelling software

Scientific software models and simulations for SARS-CoV-2, including spread,[48] functional mechanisms and properties,[49][50][48] efficacy of potential treatments,[50][48] transmission risks, vaccination modelling/monitoring, etc. (computational fluid dynamics, computational epidemiology, computational biology/computational systems biology, ...)

Modelling software and related software is also used to evaluate impacts on the environment (see #Websites) and the economy.

Results from such as models are used in science-based policy-making, science-based recommendations and the development of treatments.[48]

[email protected]

In March 2020, the volunteer distributed computing project [email protected] became the world's first system to reach one exaFLOPS.[51][52][53] The system simulates protein folding, was used for medical research on COVID-19 and achieved a speed of approximately 2.43 x86 exaFLOPS by 13 April 2020 – many times faster than the fastest supercomputer to that date Summit.[54]

That same month, the [email protected] distributed computing project also joined the effort. The project uses volunteers' computers to model the proteins of SARS-CoV-2 virus to discover potential drug targets or develop new proteins to neutralize the virus. The researchers announced that using [email protected], they were able to "accurately predict the atomic-scale structure of an important coronavirus protein weeks before it could be measured in the lab."[55]

In May 2020, the OpenPandemics—COVID-19 partnership was launched between Scripps Research and IBM's World Community Grid. The partnership is a distributed computing project that "will automatically run a simulated experiment in the background [of connected home PCs] that will help predict the efficacy of a particular chemical compound as a potential treatment for COVID-19."[56]

COVID-19 drug repurposing research and drug development

Supercomputers – including the world's fastest single supercomputers Summit and Fugaku – have been used in attempts[clarification needed] to identify potential treatments by running simulations with data on existing, already-approved medications.[57][58][59][48][50] Two early examples of supercomputer consortia are listed below:

See also

References

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External links