COVIDSafe ‘extremely limited’: New research

Denham Sadler
National Affairs Editor

The effectiveness of COVIDSafe is “extremely limited” and the contact tracing app is unlikely to help prevent the spread of the virus, according to a new policy paper.

The paper, written by academics from the Auckland University of Technology, the University of Queensland,  the University of Auckland and Massey University makes a strong argument for the adoption of the Google and Apple framework for contact tracing, which provides for a quicker process that could limit the spread of coronavirus.

COVIDSafe was launched by the Australian government in April as a way to assist with manual contact tracing once some social restrictions had lifted. It uses Bluetooth technology to record contact between users, with this information stored on the device.

COVIDSafe: New academic research says the app will have limited impact on stopping the spread of the virus

If a user tests positive for COVID-19, they then consent for this data to be sent to the national database store, with it then passed on to state and territory contact tracers. It is primarily designed to assist manual contact tracing by providing the contact information for people that a positive case may not have been able to identify, primarily random people they happen to have close contact with.

But this centralised model is too slow to effectively combat the spread of COVID-19, which requires quick isolation of close contacts due to the virus’ early infection times, the paper found.

The researchers said that COVID-19 contact tracing “needs to occur at exceptional speeds to control transmission”, and that COVIDSafe does not provide for this, meaning authorities are then “very limited in their ability to achieve control”.

“These types of enhanced manual tracing apps – such as the Australian COVIDSafe app – are extremely limited in their ability to speed up contact tracing,” the paper said.

“These apps offer more comprehensive contact tracing than manualised systems alone, but are not expected to greatly enhance speed. Since speed is the most crucial element for controlling spread of COVID-19, it is unlikely that these apps can reduce reproduction rates.”

The researchers argue that the decentralised model for digital contact tracing, as adopted by Google and Apple in their collaborative framework, would be more effective due to its speed.

Under this model, the contact tracing app itself generates an automated instantaneous notification to users if they have had contact with another user who has since tested positive for COVID-19.

This notification would then ideally be followed up by a health official.

But the Google and Apple framework is at odds with the way COVIDSafe works, and implementing the API would involve a significant adjustment of the app.

The federal government opted for a centralised model where contact information is sent to a database and then onto state and territory health authorities, rather than the decentralised model where devices check against a list of confirmed cases and notify the users directly.

The Australian government appears unlikely to adopt this model after recently updating COVIDSafe to improve functionality on Apple devices, something that had plagued the early rollout of the service.

Australia and New Zealand currently have vastly different contact tracing apps in place, something which could impact the ability to open a trans-Tasman bubble and allow travel between the two countries significantly earlier than the rest of the world.

While Australia’s app records contact between its users, New Zealand’s version records where users have visited, requiring them to scan QR codes at locations they go to. The two countries have regularly been sharing information on their different approaches and the potential to coordinate them, with New Zealand participating in the ministerial council.

The effectiveness of contact tracing apps relies nearly entirely on trust in the government, and any negative revelations or lack of transparency will also impact its effectiveness, the report found.

“The ethical justification of the app rests upon its capacity to deliver significant benefits to communities and individuals in ways which respect legitimate concerns about, for instance, consent, the security and use of information, the preservation of a role for human judgement and the possibility that the app will exacerbate existing social inequalities,” it said.

“It is possible that a lack of evidence and low uptake will diminish trust, and have negative spill-over effects to other recommendations that government might be making in managing the pandemic.

“This suggests that governments promoting contact tracing apps ought to ensure that their statements about efficacy are restricted to those that can be justified by the evidence.

“While digital contact tracing has distinct advantages, it requires the right functionality – and enhanced manual tracing apps such as Australia’s COVIDSafe, which do not enable instantaneous notification, will not achieve the enhanced speed required for success.

Digital Contact Tracing for COVID-19: A Primer for Policymakers was funded and developed by researchers and staff at the Centre for Social Data Analytics.

It was written by academics from the four universities: Rhema Vaithianathan, Matthew Ryan, Nina Anchugina, Linda Selvey, Tim Dare and Anna Brown.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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