The Intelligence Community Wants New COVID-19 Tracking Tools

Salt Lake County Health Department public health nurse Lee Cherie Booth performs a coronavirus test outside the Salt Lake County Health Department, Wednesday, May 20, 2020, in Salt Lake City.

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

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Salt Lake County Health Department public health nurse Lee Cherie Booth performs a coronavirus test outside the Salt Lake County Health Department, Wednesday, May 20, 2020, in Salt Lake City.

A call has gone out for contactless testing, contact tracing without smartphones, mutation mapping, and more.

The U.S. intelligence community’s research lab has put out a call for new data tools to track and predict the spread of COVID-19 and its effects. But some of the items on the wish list sound well beyond the current state of the art. 

Friday’s announcement from the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency, or IARPA, seeks new tools for rapidly diagnosing COVID in people with and without symptoms, via contactless methods such as breath analysis. It seeks tools for contact tracing among populations without mobile phones, via the Internet-of-things or other means — and do it while preserving privacy.

There’s a call for lots of new ways to turn data into predictive models to forecast everything from the potential economic aspects of outbreaks, to the effects of social distancing on civil unrest and even how different viruses might spread and propagate before they reach humans.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a variety of breakthrough research projects and proposals in the use of data and machine learning to help governments track and treat the virus and predict future pandemics. A University of Pittsburgh professor is working on a test that uses  a smartphone’s microphone to “measure changes in human airway mechanics, which are uniquely correlated to COVID-19 infection.”

And researchers at the University of Basel in Switzerland created a database to track the mutation of the virus as it moved around the world. 

But pulling those sorts of applications and tools together to create a holistic picture of how the virus is moving, how it’s evolving, and how it is hitting populations, economies, and civic life is a huge task. 

“Technology solutions for COVID-19 will require creative, multidisciplinary methods, paradigm changing thinking, and transformative approaches,” said IARPA Deputy Director for Research Dr. Catherine Cotell in a statement. “Our goal is to advance ground-breaking technologies that will help the Intelligence Community and the country prepare for and recover from pandemic events.”

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