Apple is partnering with the University of Washington and researchers from the Seattle Flu Study to test the ability of devices like the Apple Watch and iPhone to catch early signs of respiratory illnesses.
The study’s principal investigator, Dr. Jacob E. Sunshine, says that the goal of the study is to “eventually be able to use this type of technology to help identify respiratory infections sooner, which could benefit individuals and the community.” Participants in the study will be provided with an Apple Watch which they are required to wear day and night for up to 6 months. “The Apple Watch,” explained Dr. Sunshine, “collects data on heart rate, activity, sleep, blood oxygenation, and more.” It has already been discovered that there may be a link between low levels of blood oxygenation and COVID-19, even when no other symptoms are present. By supplementing this data with nasal swabs from the participants, researchers will be able to learn “if these data streams can be used to identify and anticipate signs or symptoms of acute respiratory illnesses.” Furthermore, participants will be expected to answer weekly health questionnaires and will be provided with free tests for COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses if they get sick at any point.
If the study finds that everyday wearable technology like Apple Watches can detect early, pre-symptomatic signs of respiratory diseases like COVID-19, it could be a powerful tool in preventing transmission by alerting the wearer before they unknowingly spread the infection. A study published in Nature Biomedical Engineering explored this idea in late 2020. Researchers discovered that wearable devices, such as a Fitbit, could detect changes in sleep patterns and daily steps of participants who later tested positive for COVID-19. By setting parameters for wearable technology to measure, this could end up being an affordable and relatively accurate way to detect COVID-19 before symptoms even manifest, allowing for quicker self-isolation and less transmission of the disease.