Automation Testing Tools and Wearables Gear Up to Tackle Coronavirus Unknowns

Data scientists and researchers are turning to robots, wearables, and data analytics to join the fight against COVID-19. Robots are helping to speed up test results, and sensor rings, watches, and wristbands are providing clues for early detection.


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Image credit: Max & Jules Photography

The coronavirus pandemic is shining a hot light on technologies and what they can—and can’t—do to help a population stay healthy. The hard-hit San Francisco Bay Area region is responding to the persistent need to think creatively and offering up options for getting test results faster and early recognition of virus symptoms to prevent its spread.

At University of California Berkeley, a team of scientists, clinicians, and volunteers have built a pop-up COVID-19 lab capable of diagnosing 1,000 swab tests a day. The lab is leaning on two robots, Hamilton STARlet and Hamilton Vantage, to process and consolidate the tests and prepare the tests for analysis. According to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, STARlet can process 500 individual tests and consolidate them onto plates while recording sample data.

The Hamilton Vantage robot further speeds the testing process by preparing the plates as they head for analysis. With the help of these robots, the lab team expects that more than 700 samples can be tested in 90 minutes, providing results in under four hours from the time the patient swabs are received. These efficiencies are huge when compared to some commercial labs that manually test one sample at a time.   

According to Hamilton, the microlab Vantage automation system allows labs to optimize storage, device integration, and transport space, allowing lab teams to process more samples in less time without risk of error or variability. 

The lab expects to perform tests on 1,000 tests daily and can ramp up to 3,000 tests per day, if necessary. It will first process tests from students, faculty, and staff at the university and later expand to clinics and medical centers elsewhere in the Bay Area. 

Tracking Vitals with Automated Sensor Ring

Across the bay in San Francisco, 2,000 medical workers will begin wearing a sensor-filled ring that tracks vital signs and sleep patterns. One of the early signs of coronavirus is a higher temperature, and doctors are eager to find out other indicators that identify the onset of the virus.

Medical workers at UCSF Medical Center and Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital will wear the Oura Ring, and the hope is that researchers can define an algorithm that could detect early stages of the virus, so wearers can seek treatment, isolate themselves, and stay home from work.

Speaking with the San Francisco Chronicle, Dr. Ashley Mason, the UCSF assistant psychiatry professor who is the lead investigator of the project, said “It will help people self-quarantine sooner, get treatment sooner.” Early detection could have a major impact on reducing the spread of the virus.

The Oura Rings are non-invasive, wearable devices that track body temperature, heart rate, and other vitals throughout the day and night. In Wuhan, China, one of the strategies was to have residents report their temperatures every day and isolate anyone with a slight fever. The Oura Ring has an advantage over a thermometer as it eliminates fluctuations of temperature that can alter the thermometer reading.

The ring has already helped identify a Finnish CEO ring wearer who tested positive for COVID-19. After checking his vitals one morning in early March, Petri Hollmen realized his body temperature was 1 degree Celsius higher than normal, and his heart rate and breathing rates were slightly increased. Hollmen felt normal, but he knew he had traveled recently to a Coronavirus hot spot in Austria and called the hospital to get tested and found out he was positive for the virus.

In a Facebook post, he wrote, “Without the ring measuring my body during the night, I would not even had known about the temperature rise.”

The first goal of the project is to alert UCSF and San Francisco General emergency workers of a fever or impending illness, so they can stay at home and get treated. Long-term goals are to be able to determine patterns in bio-marker activity that are early signs of sickness. Recently, Oura requested wearers to sign up to participate in the project and add their data to the data collected from the San Francisco medical workers. 

Are Wearables Early Warning Systems?

Data researchers are turning to the legions of wearable enthusiasts to see if the IoT devices might help spot viral outbreaks and give more insight into wearers’ personal health. Scripps Research has designed Digital Engagement and Tracking for Early Control and Treatment (DETECT), a study that will monitor heart rate and allow participants to record symptoms like coughing or fever.

The study is open to anyone wearing a Fitibit, Garmin, and other health tracking devices. Participants will anonymously share information with the Scripps Research scientists and be able to track their resting heart rate. Scientists hope they can identify areas with viral outbreaks quickly and give public health officials more time to act and to give individual participants more insight into their own health.

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