A consortium of scientists with expertise in big data research and epidemiology recently developed a COVID Symptom Tracker app aimed at rapidly collecting information to aid in the response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. As reported in the journal Science, early use of the app by more than 2.5 million people in the U.S. and the U.K has generated valuable data about COVID-19 for physicians, scientists and public officials to better fight the viral outbreak.

“The app collects daily information from individuals in the community about whether they feel well, and if not, their specific symptoms and if they have been tested for COVID-19,” said senior author Andrew T. Chan, MD, PhD, Chief of the Clinical and Translational Epidemiology Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital and Director of Cancer Epidemiology at the Mass General Cancer Center. The app is designed to provide insights on where the COVID-19 hot spots are and new symptoms to look out for, and it may be useful as a planning tool to inform guidelines around self-isolation, identify regions in need of additional ventilators and expanded hospital capacity and provide real-time data to prepare for future outbreaks.

This work has led to the development of accurate models of COVID-19 infection rates in the absence of sufficient population testing.

Andrew T. Chan, MD, PhD
Chief of Clinical and Translational Epidemiology Unit, Director of Cancer Epidemiology at Mass General

The COVID Symptom Tracker was launched in the U.K. on March 24th and became available in the U.S. on March 29th. Since launch, it has been used by more than 3 million people.

“This work has led to the development of accurate models of COVID-19 infection rates in the absence of sufficient population testing,” said Dr. Chan. “For example, the U.K. government has acted upon these estimates by providing advanced notice to local health authorities about when to expect a surge of cases.” Researchers are also using results from the app to investigate risk factors for infection, as well as the effects of COVID-19 on patients’ health.

Dr. Chan also pointed out that the app does not have any contact tracing function in contrast with software that is being rolled out in the future by some states in collaboration with Apple and Google. “Our app is designed to be entirely voluntary so that they can share information about how they are feeling in a way that safeguards their privacy.”

The team is asking individuals, even those who are feeling well, to download the app and participate in this effort to provide critically valuable information related to COVID-19. The study was conducted by a team led by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, King’s College London, and Zoe Global Ltd.

Mass General investigators were supported by the Massachusetts Consortium on Pathogen Readiness (MassCPR) and Mark and Lisa Schwartz (ATC, LHN, DAD). ATC is the Stuart and Suzanne Steele Mass General Research Scholar. Zoe provided in kind support for all aspects of building, running and supporting the tracking app and service to all users worldwide. King’s College of London investigators (KAL, MNL, TV, MG, CHS, MJC, SO, CJS, TDS) were supported by the Wellcome Trust and EPSRC (WT212904/Z/18/Z, WT203148/Z/16/Z, WT213038/Z/18/Z), the NIHR GSTT/KCL Biomedical Research Centre, MRC/BHF (MR/M016560/1), the NIHR, and the Alzheimer’s Society (AS-JF-17-011). 

About the Massachusetts General Hospital

Massachusetts General Hospital, founded in 1811, is the original and largest teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School. The Mass General Research Institute conducts the largest hospital-based research program in the nation, with annual research operations of over $1 billion and comprises more than 9,500 researchers working across more than 30 institutes, centers and departments. In August 2019 Mass General was named #2 in the U.S. News & World Report list of "America’s Best Hospitals."