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Can a watch detect COVID-19? This is how Apple and the University of Washington plan to find out

Apple announced three research studies, including one with the University of Washington, and took advantage of the feature to measure oxygen in the blood in the new Apple Watch Series 6. (Apple Photo)

The blood oxygen monitoring feature in the recently announced Apple Watch Series 6 will provide one of the key inputs for a study that seeks to determine if the device can detect early signs of an acute respiratory infection such as the flu or COVID-19.

Apple and University of Washington Medicine researchers plan to launch the study later this year and track participants during the upcoming flu season.

Announced during Apple’s virtual event on Tuesday morning, the “first of its kind” will allow researchers to draw a relationship between associated symptoms, signals from Apple Watch and iPhone, and test results for influenza and COVID-19, “according to a UW- press release that provides more information about the plans.

In addition to oxygen in the blood, the study will take into account data such as heart rate, physical activity and sleep patterns. The research will also incorporate and study behavioral interventions as reminders for Apple Watch users to wash their hands. Participants will use home testing kits that detect influenza and the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19.

Dr. Jay Shendure of the UW School of Medicine and the Brotman Baty Institute. (University of Washington Photo)

“The hope is that physiological signals from Apple Watch will make it possible to identify people who are ill and get them tested quickly so that they can self-isolate and break the chain of transmission of the virus in the community,” said Dr. Jay Shendure, director of the Brotman Baty Institute and UW School of Medicine professor of genomics, in the press release.

Researchers from Apple, the UW School of Medicine, the Brotman Baty Institute for Precision Medicine and the Seattle Flu Study will conduct the research. They will provide participants with an Apple Watch for the purpose of the study.

Apple says that the oxygen function in blood works by shining green, red and infrared light on the user’s wrists, measures the amount of light reflected back and uses algorithms to calculate the color of the person’s blood, indicating the amount of oxygen present in the blood. . The new oxygen app for blood takes a measurement of 15 seconds, the company said during Tuesday’s presentation.

If the study proves successful in identifying signs of respiratory disease, further regulatory approval may be required to take the approach beyond the research phase. As seen by some eagle-eye observers, it noted in small letters after the Apple presentation: “Blood Oxygen app measurements are not intended for medical use and are designed for general exercise and wellness purposes only.”

Researchers say they will recruit a diverse group of participants, including frontline workers and people from underrepresented groups who have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The collaboration with the University of Washington is one of three research studies announced by Apple in connection with the unveiling of the Apple Watch Series 6 on Tuesday. The company also collaborates with UC Irvine and Anthem Health Insurance Company to study oxygen and asthma in the blood; and with the Ted Rogers Center for Heart Research and the Peter Munk Cardiac Center at the University Health Network to study oxygen and heart failure in the blood.

The potential trade-off between privacy and public health has emerged as one of the most important issues when researchers look at using technology to monitor and slow the spread of COVID-19. Data for the UW study will be collected via the Apple Research app, which researchers say will provide built-in privacy protection.

In a separate initiative, Apple and Google have partnered on smartphone technology to help states implement COVID-19 contact tracking systems, but the technology is only available so far in a handful of states.

Regardless of the research studies, the Apple Watch Series 6 will be available starting September 18 in the US from $ 399.

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