The European struggle with COVID-19 contact tracing app continues...

COVID-19 vaccination has started yet lifting restrictive measures will take time. Monitoring of local outbreaks and contact tracing remain essential to avoid future lockdowns and permit larger gatherings. Regrettably, contact tracing apps were not successful in Europe. Automated contact tracing should still play an important role in reopening society, however using different technology and a different approach.

Earlier in 2020, we supported European efforts to better track COVID-19 contagion with the help of smartphone apps, but cautioned the technology’s complexity and worried about Europe’s country-by-country approach. Now, we can ascertain that despite occasional progress the struggle continues. Deployment and adoption of tracing apps remained below expectations, and high infection rates across Europe hindered large scale contact tracing. Moreover, accelerating vaccination shifted focus from technical solutions for contact tracing.

It is important, however, that the high hopes in vaccination do not lead decisionmakers to concentrate again on a single solution. It will take time to reach a critical mass of vaccinated citizens and the vaccines have yet to prove to what extent they protect us from infection and from being infectious.

A fast and safe recovery of our societies and economies necessitates a combination of restrictive measures, vaccination, testing and tracing; the latter requiring automated support.

EU attempts failed

Several European countries launched contact tracing apps already in early 2020, yet in a scattered approach to a problem that respects no national borders. Two consortia of researchers, dominated by European players, worked on centralised and decentralised protocols to run tracing apps. Unfortunately, EU countries could not agree on a single path, which turned out to hinder interoperability.

At the same time, in an unprecedented collaboration, US tech giants Apple and Google released in May 2020 a joint framework and protocol specification for contact tracing (GAEN). Given the global dominance of their mobile phone operating systems, it was inevitable that most contact tracing apps would eventually build on GAEN from the outset or were reconfigured to be compatible.

To overcome fragmentation, the European Commission launched in September an interoperability gateway service, linking national apps across the EU. Unfortunately, as of today, only 11 of 27 Member States have registered with the service.

Contrary to early predictions that up to 85% of potential users would download contact-tracing apps, worldwide download rates have so far been much lower. In Germany around 21%, in Italy 14%, in France the latest version TousAntiCovid is at 15%. With about 40%, Iceland and early mover Singapore have the highest rates to date. And downloading the app is not the same as using it or responding to warnings.

The root causes

So why have contact tracing apps not delivered what was expected of them?

Despite claims that users’ privacy would be guaranteed, and even in cases where corona apps were rubber stamped as privacy protecting, concerns prevailed and uptake was dissatisfying.

Secondly, the idea of contact tracing focussed almost exclusively on fast deployment via smart phones. Everyone has a smart phone – smart phones have Bluetooth – so let’s go for apps, using Bluetooth technology! Essential aspects of privacy and ease-of-use were downplayed.

Finally, tracing apps were not well embedded in existing ecosystems to fight the pandemic. It is, for example, not helpful to have an app, if not enough testing facilities are in place, or if they are not easily accessible.

Automated contact tracing: a lost case?

To reopen public life, we need to combine the gradual release of restrictive measures like social distancing, remote working, or lockdowns with vaccination, intense testing, and fast contact tracing. Automated contact tracing has particular relevance for larger gatherings like concerts or sports events. These will only be feasible if we closely monitor possible outbreaks and react fast to prevent substantial restrictions.

Unfortunately, contact tracing apps did not deliver. The lessons learnt from their failure should be: 1/ privacy first, second and third; 2/ simplicity, simplicity, simplicity; 3/ reliability, and 4/ take an approach that works with limited but focussed use.

We therefore stressed the importance to consider alternative technologies, like physical tokens. Tokens are a proven technology in logistics and have been deployed in Singapore to trace COVID-19 infections. They only require minimal functionality for contact tracing, are small, robust, cheap, and consume little energy. And their simplicity, single application, and the fact that they are not ‘always on’ allow for high levels of security and privacy protection. Tokens even work small scale if deployed to limited groups of people. No download or installation are needed, no connection to personal data possible.

EIT Digital partners created ventures to test COVID-19 tracing tokens in real-life settings and to commercialize and deploy their products. The tokens are built in Europe, operate on European software, and work independent of non-European (mobile) platforms. A tangible contribution to a more sovereign digital Europe!

We invite governments, businesses, sports and cultural sectors to apply tracing tokens for targeted use in schools, at workplaces, or for events. At this point, we must put all options on the table that could benefit a faster and safer return to a thriving economy and an open society.

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