Pinterest CEO and a team of leading scientists launch a self-reporting COVID-19 tracking app

There have been a few scattered efforts to leverage crowd-sourced self-reporting of symptoms as a way to potentially predict and chart the progress of COVID-19 across the U.S., and around the world. A new effort looks like the most comprehensive, well-organized and credibly backed yet — and it has been developed in part by Pinterest co-founder and CEO Ben Silbermann.

Silbermann and a team from Pinterest enlisted the help of high school friend, and CRISPR gene-editing pioneer / MIT and Harvard Broad Institute member, Dr. Feng Zhang to build what Silbermann termed in a press release a “bridge between citizens and scientists.” The result is the How We Feel app that Silbermann developed along with input from Zhang and a long list of well-regarded public health, computer science, therapeutics, social science and medical professors from Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Weill Cornell and more.

How We Feel is a mobile app available for both iOS and Android, which is free to download, and which is designed to make it very easy to self-report whether or not they feel well — and if they’re feeling unwell, what symptoms they’re experiencing. It also asks for information about whether or not you’ve been tested for COVID-19, and whether you’re in self-isolation, and for how long. The amount of interaction required is purposely streamlined to make it easy for anyone to contribute daily, and to do so in a minute or less.

The app doesn’t ask for or collect info like name, phone number or email information. It includes an up-front request that users agree to donate their information, and the data collected will be aggregated and then shared with researchers, public health professionals and doctors, including those who are signed on as collaborators with the project, as well as others (and the project is encouraging collaborators to reach out if interested). Part of the team working on the project are experts in the field of differential privacy, and a goal of the endeavor is to ensure that people’s information is used responsibly.

The How We Feel app is, as mentioned, one of a number of similar efforts out there, but this approach has a number of advantages when compared to existing projects. First, it’s a mobile app, whereas some rely on web-based portals that are less convenient for the average consumer, especially when you want continued use over time. Second, they’re motivating use through positive means — Silbermann and his wife Divya will be providing a donated meal to nonprofit Feeding America for every time a person downloads and uses the app for the first time, up to a maximum of 10 million meals. Finally, it’s already designed in partnership with, and backed by, world-class academic institutions and researchers, and seems best-positioned to be able to get the information it gathers to the greatest number of those in a position to help.

How We Feel is organized as an entirely independent, nonprofit organization, and it’s hoping to expand its availability and scientific collaboration globally. It’s an ambitious project, but also one that could be critically important in supplementing testing efforts and other means of tracking the progress and course of the spread of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19. While self-reported information on its own is far from a 100% accurate or reliable source, taken in aggregate at scale, it could be a very effective leading indicator of new or emerging viral hotspots, or provide scientific researches with other valuable insights when used in combination with other signals.

Researchers to study if startup’s wrist-worn wearable can detect early COVID-19 respiratory issues

It’s highly unlikely that the current coronavirus crisis will be neatly and fully “solved” by any one endeavor or solution, which makes new studies like one involving startup WHOOP’s wrist-worn fitness and health tracking wearable all the more important. The study, conducted by the Central Queensland University Australia (CQUniversity), in partnership with the Cleveland Clinic, will employ data collected by WHOOP’s hardware from hundreds of volunteers who have self-identified as having contracted COVID-19 to study changes in their respiratory behavior over time.

The data to be used for this study has been collected from WHOOP’s 3.0 hardware, which has also recently been validated by a University of Arizona external study conducted specifically to determine the accuracy of its measurement of respiratory rates during sleep, which the device uses to provide quality of sleep scores to its users. That study showed it to be among the most accurate measurement tools for respiratory rate short of invasive procedures, which is what has led researchers behind this new study to hypothesize that it could be valuable as a sort of early-warning system for detecting signs of abnormal respiratory behavior in COVID-19 patients before those symptoms are detectable by other means.

The WHOOP team says that the respiratory rate its hardware reports very rarely deviates from an established individual baseline, and that when it does so, it’s usually due to either one of two causes: environmental factors, like unusually high temperatures or significant differences in oxygen concentration, or something happening within the body, like a lower-respiratory tract infection.

COVID-19 is specifically a lower-respiratory tract infection, unlike the flu or a cold, which are upper-respiratory issues. That means there’s a strong correlation between rate changes due to lower-respiratory tract issues not accounted by environmental problems (which are relatively easy to cancel out) and instances of COVID-19. And because the WHOOP wearable is designed to look for deviations as a sign of distress, among the other sings it monitors, it could notice changes to respiratory rates relative to baselines before an individual becomes aware of any significant shortness of breath themselves.

This is a study, so at this point that’s just a hypothesis, and will need to be backed up by data. The team behind it says it should take around six weeks, and there are an “initial several hundred self-reported COVID-19 cases” already present in the app from which it will begin, with a target of enrolling at least 500 individuals with positive COVID-19 test results. There are also other investigations underway to see if wearables that monitor a user’s health and fitness can provide early warning systems for potential COVID-19 cases, including a study being conducted by UCSF using the Oura Ring.

Unlike with previous pandemics, the current coronavirus crisis comes at a time when we’re increasingly used to taking data-driven approaches to solving challenges, and when we also have a lot of self-quantifying health devices in circulation. Those could help us get a better grip on assessing the spread, as well as trends related to how it circulates and ebbs/grows within a population.

NYU makes face shield design for healthcare workers that can be built in under a minute available to all

New York University is among the many academic, private and public institutions doing what it can to address the need for personal protective equipment (PPE) among healthcare workers across the world. The school worked quickly to develop an open-source face-shield design, and is now offering that design freely to any and all in order to help scale manufacturing to meet needs.

Face shields are a key piece of equipment for front-line healthcare workers operating in close contact with COVID-19 patients. They’re essentially plastic, transparent masks that extend fully to cover a wearer’s face. These are to be used in tandem with N95 and surgical masks, and can protect a healthcare professional from exposure to droplets containing the virus expelled by patients when they cough or sneeze.

The NYU project is one of many attempts to scale production of face masks, but many others rely on 3D printing. This has the advantage of allowing even very small commercial 3D-print operations and individuals to contribute, but 3D printing takes a lot of time — roughly 30 minutes to an hour per print. NYU’s design requires only basic materials, including two pieces of clear, flexible plastic and an elastic band, and it can be manufactured in less than a minute by essentially any production facility that includes equipment for producing flat products (whole punches, laser cutters, etc.).

This was designed in collaboration with clinicians, and over 100 of them have already been distributed to emergency rooms. NYU’s team plans to ramp production of up to 300,000 of these once they have materials in hand at the factories of production partners they’re working with, which include Daedalus Design and Production, PRG Scenic Technologies and Showman Fabricators.

Now, the team is putting the design out there for pubic use, including a downloadable tool kit so that other organizations can hopefully replicate what they’ve done and get more into circulation. They’re also welcoming inbound contact from manufacturers who can help scale additional production capacity.

Other initiatives are working on different aspects of the PPE shortage, including efforts to build ventilators and extend their use to as many patients as possible. It’s a great example of what’s possible when smart people and organizations collaborate and make their efforts available to the community, and there are bound to be plenty more examples like this as the COVID-19 crisis deepens.

Prisma Health develops FDA-authorized 3D-printed device that lets a single ventilator treat four patients

The impending shortage of ventilators for U.S. hospitals is likely already a crisis, but will become even more dire as the number grows of patients with COVID-19 that are suffering from severe symptoms and require hospitalization. That’s why a simple piece of hardware newly approved by the FDA for emergency use — and available free via source code and 3D printing for hospitals — might be a key ingredient in helping minimize the strain on front-line response efforts.

The Prisma Health VESper is a deceptively simple-looking three-way connector that expands use of one ventilator to treat up to four patients simultaneously. The device is made for use with ventilators that comply to existing ISO standard ventilator hardware and tubing, and allows use of filtering equipment to block any possible transmission of viruses and bacteria.

VESper works in device pairs, with one attached to the intake of the ventilator, and another attached to the return. They also can be stacked to allow for treatment of up to four patients at once — provided the patients require the same clinical treatment in terms of oxygenation, including the oxygen mix as well as the air pressure and other factors.

This was devised by Dr. Sarah Farris, an emergency room doctor, who shared the concept with her husband Ryan Farris, a software engineer who developed the initial prototype design for 3D printing. Prisma Health is making the VESper available upon request via its printing specifications, but it should be noted that the emergency use authorization under which the FDA approved its use means that this is only intended effectively as a last-resort measure — for institutions where ventilators approved under established FDA rules have already been exhausted, and no other supply or alternative is available in order to preserve the life of patients.

Devices cleared under FDA Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) like this one are fully understood to be prototypes, and the conditions of their use includes a duty to report the results of how they perform in practice. This data contributes to the ongoing investigation of their effectiveness, and to further development and refinement of their design in order to maximize their safety and efficacy.

In addition to offering the plans for in-house 3D printing, Prisma Health has sourced donations to help print units for healthcare facilities that don’t have access to their own 3D printers. The first batch of these will be funded by a donation from the Sargent Foundation of South Carolina, but Prisma Health is seeking additional donations to fund continued research as well as additional production.

Dyson and Gtech answer UK call for ventilator design and production to support COVID-19 response

Companies around the world are shifting production lines and business models to address the needs of governments and healthcare agencies in their efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19. Two companies answering that call are Dyson and Gtech, both of which are working on ventilator hardware, leveraging their experience building vacuums and other motor-driven airflow gadgets to spin up new designs and get them validated and produced as quickly as possible.

Dyson, the globally recognized appliance maker, is working with The Technology Partnership (TTP) on a brand new ventilator design called the CoVent. This design is meant to be made quickly and at high volumes, and leverages Dyson’s existing Digital Motor design, as well as the company’s air purification products, to deliver safe and consistent ventilation for COVID-19 patients, according to an internal email from founder James Dyson to Dyson employees and provided to TechCrunch.

Dyson was reacting to a request from U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson for ventilator supplies, and intends to first fulfill an order of 10,000 units for the U.K. government. Its ventilator still needs to be tested and its production process approved by the government and the U.K.’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (the MHRA, its FDA equivalent), but Dyson says in the email that “the race is now on to get it into production.” The company notes that experts from both the U.K.’s national healthcare agency and the MHRA have been involved throughout its design process, which should help expedite approvals.

The CoVent meets the specifications set out by clinicians for ventilator hardware, and is both bed-mounted and portable with a battery power supply, for flexible use across a variety of settings, including during patient transportation. Because it uses a lightly modified version of Dyson’s existing Digital Motor design, the company says that the fan units needed for its production are “available in very high volume.”

“I am proud of what Dyson engineers and our partners at TTP have achieved. I am eager to see this new device in production and in hospitals as soon as possible,” Dyson wrote in his email. “This is clearly a time of grave international crisis, I will therefore donate 5,000 units to the international effort, 1,000 of which will go to the United Kingdom.”

Meanwhile, Gtech, another U.K. home appliance and vacuum maker, has likewise done what it can to answer the government’s call for ventilator hardware. The company’s owner Nick Grey said that it received a request to build up to 30,000 ventilators in just a two-week span, which promoted them to quickly set about figuring out what went into the design of this medical hardware.

Gtech’s team developed a ventilator that can be made from parts easily obtained from abundant stock materials, or off-the-shelf pre-assembled parts. The company says that it can spin up production of around 100 per day within a week or two, so long as it can source steel fabrication and CNC machining suppliers.

In addition to its own production capacity, Gtech is making its ventilator designs available for free to the broader community in order to ramp production. The company says that “there’s no reason why thousands of emergency ventilators can’t be made each day” in this way, according to an interview with Grey and CTV News. Like the Dyson model, Gtech’s design will need assessment and certification from the U.K. government and regulators before they can be put into use.