Story at a glance

  • Researchers estimate that up to half of those who have contracted the coronavirus are asymptomatic.
  • People with COVID-19 who display no symptoms may be a risk to others, as testing capabilities in the U.S. are still limited and some states begin to reopen businesses.
  • Fitness tracking companies such as Oura and Whoop have begun working on studies that may help catch initial signs of the coronavirus in asymptomatic people.
  • Countries like China are now using fitness tracking technology to monitor the health of recovered patients, some of which are once again testing positive for the virus.

Researchers have recently estimated that between one-quarter to half of people with COVID-19 are asymptomatic, meaning they are most likely unaware that they have the virus at all. It poses a dangerous situation for so many Americans, especially when some state governments are making moves to reopen their economies, and testing is only available for those exhibiting surefire symptoms of the coronavirus. 

In an effort to better identify asymptomatic people, researchers are now exploring whether wearable fitness trackers may provide early clues for those who may be infected with the coronavirus but are not yet aware by using the health data tracked on such devices — heart rate, sleep cycle and body temperature.


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One such study is being conducted by Finnish health start-up Oura, which is sponsoring research at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) to study whether physiological data collected by the Oura ring, combined with responses to daily symptom surveys, can predict illness symptoms. The study aims to build an algorithm to help UCSF identify patterns of onset, progression and recovery for COVID-19.

Bringing fitness trackers to the front line

The research study is being called TemPredict, and will include two groups: front-line health care workers and the general population. More than 2,000 health care workers, including doctors and nurses who are in daily contact with patients afflicted with COVID-19 at UCSF campuses, have already received Oura rings. By letting health care workers track changes in their body temperature, respiratory rate and heart rate, Oura believes the workers may be better equipped to understand early warning signs of infection within the group and to take necessary actions to prevent the spread and look after their own health.

Oura is also conducting a national study with the West Virginia University Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute, one that seeks to look at individuals even more holistically, integrating physiologic measures with psychological, cognitive and behavioral biometrics, such as stress and anxiety. In real-time, this integrated approach can provide an early and more comprehensive assessment, tracking the mind-body connection and homeostasis in the context of asymptomatic infection, allowing the team to hopefully forecast and predict the onset of fever, cough, fatigue and other physical symptoms linked to viral infections.


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The study is also open to all of Oura’s approximately 150,000 ring users, should they decide to opt in. By taking daily symptom surveys, willing study participants directly contribute their observations paired to their data to the UCSF team, allowing researchers to use this information as they attempt to identify patterns that could predict onset, progression and recovery in future cases of COVID-19. If this approach is successful, it could open the door for research into tracking and managing other illnesses and conditions.

“At Oura, we’ve heard firsthand from our users how the physiological signals tracked by the ring have predicted the onset of the virus before other symptoms manifest,” Harpreet Rai, CEO of Oura Health, said. “We’re grateful we can apply this knowledge to help vulnerable caregivers swiftly identify the earliest signs of the disease, and take the appropriate protective measures to limit its spread.” 

Monitoring your health at home

Rai told Changing America about one Oura user in Finland, named Petri Hollmen, who posted publicly on Facebook about how his Oura ring accurately reported an increase in his body temperature. The change signaled the onset of the coronavirus, even though he wasn’t exhibiting any of the other symptoms at the time. Petri subsequently tested positive for COVID-19 and was able to self-quarantine before further spreading the disease.

Oura isn’t the only company to take notice of the potentially life-saving benefits of wearing a fitness tracker. Other makers of health-monitoring technology are now offering ways to track possible coronavirus symptoms, even big names like Apple. Apple Watch owners were recently told they can now monitor their response to symptoms of infections like COVID-19 using a new feature introduced by heart health app Cardiogram.

Will Ahmed, CEO of the fitness tracking Whoop Band, said recently that they were doing research on the body changes that appear to be linked to coronavirus infections, identifying four patterns: decreasing heart rate variability, increasing resting heart rates, decreasing recoveries and a higher respiratory rate.

"We believe that a noticeable increase in respiratory rate is a measurable precursor of COVID-19 symptoms based on individual cases that we have seen in our data,” Ahmed said in a statement. “Whoop data may be able to help identify the coronavirus during the incubation period before someone feels sick." 

The technology is now being utilized around the world

As China continues their recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, their doctors and health officials are beginning to shift their focus from emergency wards to those who have already been discharged from them. To keep track of the health of these former COVID-19 patients, a team of medical experts is seeking the help of Huami, the Xiaomi-backed maker of Amazfit smartwatches.

Huami’s devices are designed to monitor the same statistics one might see in the fitness trackers listed above, like heart rate, sleeping patterns and workout data. Some are even equipped with GPS, allowing those monitoring the data to know where a user has been and how far they’ve walked — data that is especially important considering that recent study in Hong Kong showed some survivors felt short of breath during brisk walks, and up to 10 percent of recovered patients in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, have tested positive for the virus again.

Germany, which is among the five countries with the highest number of coronavirus cases worldwide, is also beginning to utilize fitness-tracking technology. The Robert Koch Institute, the federal agency responsible for disease control and prevention, teamed up with healthtech start-up Thryve to develop a mobile application called Corona-Datenspende, which translates to “corona data donation.”

The app syncs up to smartwatches and fitness wristbands from companies like Apple, Fitbit and Garmin, and collects user information on activities like walking, exercise and rest, as well as data on blood pressure, heart rate and body temperature. It also accounts for sociodemographic data such as age, gender and weight.

“Digital applications can usefully supplement the previous measures to contain Covid-19,” said Robert Koch Institute president Lothar Wieler in a statement at the launch of the app on April 7. “If the sample is big enough to capture enough symptomatic patients, that would help us to draw conclusions on how infections are spreading and whether containment measures are working.”


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Published on Apr 29, 2020