Can Wearables Detect Early Warning Signs of COVID-19?

August 24, 2020 - 8 minutes read

Wearables have quickly grown from being simple step trackers to full-on health tracking devices equipped with EKG monitoring, sleep tracking, and stress indicators. Many of us either own one of these technological marvels or know someone who does. Not only do wearables include smartwatches, but there are now smart rings, shoes, clothing, and eyeglasses.

With the adoption of wearables taking off in recent years, these devices could possibly help us deduce if we are exhibiting early symptoms of the COVID-19 infection. This new type of medical application comes at a great time: COVID-19 testing centers are overwhelmed with visitors and are experiencing delays in receiving test results. Because the virus moves quickly, there’s no time to wait 5-7 business days for a test result.

A Promising Premise

Several research studies are experimenting with algorithms that analyze data from wearables to detect COVID-19 symptoms. The concept is promising and sound. Wearables are already being used to monitor general health conditions, so rearranging the thresholds of a certain biometric isn’t too difficult to do. For example, most of San Francisco-based Fitbit’s devices measure resting heart rate as a function of heart health. When it detects that the resting heart rate is elevated and activity levels are down, it could mean a possible infection.

However, this type of behavior could indicate something other than an infection. For example, it could simply mean that someone was injured during a workout and have been resting their body for a few weeks. A sudden change is the biggest factor in determining if the data is pointing to signs of an infection.

Most wearables don’t track body temperature, so one of the most obvious early symptoms of COVID-19, fever, is not measurable with these devices. It’s difficult to obtain body temperature from an external, skin-based source like a watch or ring. The skin changes temperature based on environment and stress, so it’s not a reliable indicator of internal body temperature. Additionally, temperature sensors can often have less-than-ideal skin contact, making the technology unreliable and unuseable (for now).

With wearable temperature patches, the issues are reduced quite a bit. In fact, this patch can communicate continuously with our fitness trackers. But even an elevated body temperature tells us little-to-no information: Which infection is it? Could it be COVID-19? What is the person’s true body temperature? Although the data leads us to vague conclusions, we can still use the information to take action in quarantining a possible sick person until their test results come back.

Innovating New Features

COVID-19 is accelerating medical innovation around the world. Scientists are working without borders to find a vaccine or cure. For wearable development companies like Fitbit, Apple, and Garmin, the pandemic is making them consider more diagnostic-based capabilities and additional sensors.

A sample of someone’s sweat can tell us a lot about their health condition. Sweat sensors can detect compounds like glucose, alcohol, sodium ions, and even the skin’s pH. The sweat rate can also help us extrapolate the inner body temperature, making it another metric for researchers to investigate further. Likewise, tears can point to a lot of information about the body’s health. To measure tears, researchers are developing IoT-enabled contact lenses and smart lenses.

Although all of these biometrics point us to the possibility of an infection, we wouldn’t be able to actually confirm whether it’s the virus without a virus-detecting sensor. RNA detection involves a few steps: extract RNA from the person, make copies of it, and then identify it. However, the equipment to detect RNA rapidly is not miniature enough to fit onto the human body yet. Currently, the technology has worked its way to a “lab-on-a-chip”, which is a concept that shrinks lab tests from requiring large equipment to the size of a computer chip or microscope slide.

For example, there is a COVID-19 test with a sensor made of a specialized ion-sensitive field-effect transistor (ISFET). The ISFET responds to the presence of a viral RNA strain within an hour. These sensors can be made smaller and take less power to fit into a wearable that detects viruses. With this type of technology, there would be a much shorter wait for test results, and it could prevent spreading of the virus by notifying the person to self-isolate immediately.

An Ideal Wearable

In a perfect world, a wearable capable of detecting COVID-19 could alert its user that the virus is present in the environment, allowing them to exit the area safely before becoming exposed to the contagious particles. However, this is unrealistic; airborne detection requires a lot of expensive equipment to collect and analyze gasses. Another method, called the plasmonic photothermal biosensor, is promising, but it requires the wearer to perform the analysis.

Another issue with wearables as they currently stand is their cost and accessibility. People without a smartphone cannot access the app, and the device itself is expensive for many people. The devices can also be difficult to use and understand at first, creating a steep learning curve for one of the highest-risk populations of COVID-19: elderly people and immigrants. It’s critical that wearables are used by most people in a population for the biggest payoff in avoiding the virus.

Ideally, wearables would be easy-to-setup, cost-effective, and fully capable of rapidly detecting COVID-19 in the environment or in the body. However, like all emerging technologies, the industry is growing quickly and working to ensure these requirements are built into the next iterations of their devices. It’s important for wearable companies to take input from a diverse community for the highest chance of larger adoption rates.

How long do you think it will take us to reach the ideal wearable for detecting COVID-19? Do you think there will be a vaccine before this? Let us know in the comments below!

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