How Covid Tracking Apps Are Pivoting for Commercial Profit

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Spector sees this current version of the Zoe app as a giant citizen science project. Users can sign up to different studies, which involve answering questions through the app. Current studies include investigations into the gut microbiome, early signs of dementia, and the role of immune health in heart disease. Before the pandemic, recruiting hundreds of thousands of people for a study would be nearly impossible, but the Zoe app is now a huge potential resource for new research. “I’d love to see what happens when 100,000 people skip breakfast for two weeks,” says Spector.

People who reported Covid symptoms aren’t automatically included in these new studies. Some 800,000 people have agreed to track their health beyond Covid through the Zoe app, while a smaller proportion of people have signed up to specific trials. But it’s hard to imagine these huge sign-up figures without the app having played such a prominent role during the pandemic.

“These emergency situations become catalysts and create a very unique environment,” says Angeliki Kerasidou, an ethics professor at the University of Oxford. “Something we need to be thinking a bit more carefully about is how we use these situations and what we do with them.”

There’s also a question about the line between providing care and conducting research, Kerasidou says. At the height of the pandemic, the National Health Services of Wales and Scotland directed people to track their symptoms through the Zoe app. Tracking Covid symptoms that way might have seemed like the socially responsible thing to do, but now that the app’s emphasis is on wider health tracking and clinical studies, should people feel the same obligation to take part?

The German app Luca is undergoing an even more dramatic about-face. In spring 2021, 13 German states had signed contact-tracing contracts with the app, worth a total of €21.3 million ($22.4 million...

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