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Smartwatches, fitness trackers could be 'game changer' in COVID-19 detection

As some U.S. states are seeing a shortage of COVID-19 diagnostic tests, wearable fitness trackers and smartwatches might provide another avenue for detecting COVID-19 before symptoms present themselves.

In a June 27 analyst note, Urte Jakimaviciute, senior director of market research at Global Data, said that wearable fitness trackers' ability to monitor sleep patterns, activity and heart rate may make them a "game changer" in detecting COVID-19 symptoms.

"Given the highly contagious nature of the virus, early detection could prove crucial in minimizing its spread while economies re-open and social distancing measures are scaled back," said Jakimaviciute.

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The DETECT study is collecting user data from a variety of smartwatches and fitness trackers such as Fitbit's line of trackers.
Source: Fitbit

This is the idea behind clinical trials and research studies being conducted right now such as Stanford University's COVID-19 Wearables Study and the Scripps Research Translational Institute's DETECT study.

The Scripps study was inspired by a paper published in January that analyzed a data set of 200,000 Fitbit users between 2016-2018.

Jennifer Radin, a senior staff scientist at Scripps Research Translational Institute and lead author of the study, said she came up with the idea after noticing that her resting heart rate, as indicated by her fitness tracker, was higher than usual when she was sick. Looking at the data set, Radin and the other researchers discovered that sleep patterns and resting heart rate were good indicators of whether or not a person was sick.

"It really significantly improved our ability to predict real-time influenza-like illness surveillance at the state level," Radin said in an interview with S&P Global Market Intelligence, noting that it takes one to three weeks for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to collect this data.

Indications of illness

Radin and other researchers created the DETECT study in order to further this research into influenza-like illnesses. When COVID-19 became a major concern, however, the two-year-long study quickly pivoted to make the pandemic its priority.

Scripps is looking at many different wearable devices across the board from Apple Inc.'s Apple Watch, Fitbit Inc.'s fitness trackers, and Garmin Ltd.'s line of smartwatches and fitness trackers.

Radin says that unlike some remote monitoring devices, which are being used to detect arrhythmias that may indicate COVID-19, the DETECT study is primarily interested in how users' resting heart rate changes compared to their normal resting heart rate. Just as every person has a different set of fingerprints, everyone has a different resting heart rate, and what may be considered normal for one person may be a sign of illness in another.

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Jennifer Radin, PhD
Source: Scripps Research Translational Institute

Similarly, Radin says changes in users' sleep patterns may be indications of whether or not they are feeling well and could be an early indicator of COVID-19 or another influenza-like illness. There are over 35,000 people participating in the DETECT study.

While not yet a medical diagnostic, Radin said these wearables could potentially be better first-line indications of illness.

"Right now, many offices and employers rely on temperature screening [and] asking people if they have any symptoms or [have] traveled. Those kinds of traditional screening methods are quite lacking," Radin said. "[There are] pre-symptomatic, asymptomatic cases and also not many people actually develop a fever."

Wearables are also being studied by some groups to see if they can detect deterioration or worsening symptoms in patients that have COVID-19.

A clinical trial sponsored by Peking University First Hospital in Beijing aims to recruit 200 participants with asymptomatic, mild cases of the virus to monitor their heart rate, sleep patterns, blood oxygen saturation, electrocardiogram and exercise records via wearables.

The University Hospital Heidelberg in Germany will look at 50 patients who have COVID-19 and cardiovascular diseases or take medications with arrhythmogenic risk in an upcoming clinical trial. Participants will be given an Apple Watch Series 5 device, and researchers will monitor their ECG and fitness activity.

Issues with user-generated data and different wearables

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Apple announced its Apple Watch Series 5 will have sleep-tracking capabilities.
Source: Apple Inc.

Radin said the DETECT study can only accurately monitor people if they consistently wear their devices. Since the study is measuring changes against users' own personal normals, they need to be able to track people over a long period of time to know what those normal levels are.

Furthermore, different brands of fitness trackers and smartwatches have different capabilities. For example, Apple just recently announced that its new Apple Watches will have sleep tracking capabilities built-in, but Fitbit's fitness trackers have had this capability for much longer.

Jakimaviciute notes a few potential concerns with using wearables to monitor and detect COVID-19 symptoms including privacy issues, regulatory issues and accuracy.

"While wearable technology can provide significant help in the fight with COVID-19, health and fitness wearables are not yet accurate enough to detect COVID-19 symptoms at medical levels of precision," Jakimaviciute said.