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Smartwatches: A weapon against COVID-19?

English: A person wearing a smartwatch (Apple Watch). Smartwatches illustration
Image credit: Crew, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The ever-popular smartwatches may have a new application: detecting COVID-19.

New research suggests that the wearables could indicate a case of COVID-19 even before symptoms present in the wearer in question. The study, conducted by researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine in the United States and published in Nature Biomedical Engineering, found that “consumer smartwatches can be used for the pre-symptomatic detection” of COVID-19. This is based on an analysis of “physiological and activity data from 32 individuals infected with COVID-19, identified from a cohort of nearly 5,300 participants.”

The analysis found that 26 of them [the infected participants] (81 percent) had alterations in their heart rate, number of daily steps or time asleep. Of the 25 cases of COVID-19 with detected physiological alterations for which we had symptom information, 22 were detected before (or at) symptom onset, with four cases detected at least nine days earlier. 

“Using retrospective smartwatch data, we show that 63 percent of the COVID-19 cases could have been detected before symptom onset in real time via a two-tiered warning system based on the occurrence of extreme elevations in resting heart rate relative to the individual baseline.” 

The pandemic has increased interest in smartwatches, reports indicate. “Around the world, many organisations have also started to use wearables to help the fight against Covid-19,” The Irish Times quoted Jitesh Ubrani, research manager for IDC Mobile Device Trackers, as saying in September. “Not only are wearables being used to track symptoms, but also to warn wearers when social distance isn’t being maintained.”

This is a boon for a market already projected to grow to be worth US$73 billion by 2022 according to Statista. This is compared to US$16 billion in 2016. The popularity of wearables such as smartwatches is growing in India. This year, IDC reported a 168 percent growth in the market in 2019. 

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