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NOVID: App that warns users before COVID-19 exposure ― US prof keen to work with S’pore on app

The Independent logo The Independent 20/10/2021 Hana O
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Singapore ― Loh Po-Shen, an American mathematic professor, hopes to work with Singapore in developing an app that will inform members of the public just how close Covid-19 is to the individual.

Prof Loh, 39, is a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and developer of Novid, an app that functions as an early warning system for Covid-19 exposure.

In September this year, Prof Loh left a comment on Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s Facebook post, presenting the concept of Novid and expressing his interest in working with the government.

“Thanks for sharing your interesting idea! I’ve passed this to the team at GovTech (Singapore’s Government Technology Agency) to take a closer look,” Mr Lee replied.

GovTech has been in contact with Prof Loh, and more information on the research was shared, reported Straits Times.

How the app works

Novid works with Bluetooth technology, much like TraceTogether, and creates a map of contacts based on the degrees of separation between individuals.

For example, family members with daily contact would be a first-degree contact, while less frequently met individuals would be tagged as a second-degree contact.

The app would then use ultrasound to check if there was close or prolonged interaction between users determined by about 2.75 metres for 15 minutes.

An ultrasound signal, inaudible to humans, will be emitted to gauge the physical distance between two app users.

When a contact tests positive for Covid-19, the user previously in contact with that person will be notified and be informed of the degrees of separation.

It was reported that the app does not collect location data or store or transmit personal information to any external server.

“The hardest thing in a pandemic is to get people to take actions that reduce their own freedoms to protect everyone else, but what we came up with is a system where even purely selfish behaviour helps to control the disease,” said Prof Loh.

“The standard contact-tracing app tells you when you are at risk of transmitting the virus, and you need to isolate yourself to protect others.

Our approach is to give you information about how close the virus is to you, so you protect yourself by cutting back on activities to reduce your own probability of infection even before exposure,” he noted.

A drawback with the app is that it requires users to update a positive Covid-19 test result manually and is not integrated with national health systems to update infection statuses automatically.

According to Associate Professor Alex Cook, vice-dean of research at the National University of Singapore Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, the concept is “ingenious”. Still, it would need approval from the government or agencies like the Ministry of Health to be successful.

“Ideally, the Novid principle would be adapted into the TraceTogether app itself, perhaps with an opt-in option,” added Assoc Prof Cook.

Prof Loh is an American, born to Singaporean parents who migrated to the US. He is also the national coach of the US International Mathematical Olympiad team.

Novid is currently free to download through its website.

“We chose to release Novid for free to help as many people as quickly as possible,” said the Novid team. /TISG


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