Researchers develop COVID-19 study you can participate in from home

Posted at 3:26 PM, Apr 08, 2020

Even from home, there are ways to help out during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The University of California San Francisco has developed a new “COVID-19 Citizen Scientist” study.

“We would love to be able to identify the risk factors that tend to be directly under the control of the individual that can meaningfully affect infection rates,” Greg Marcus, professor of Medicine at University of California San Francisco, said.

Marcus is also a co-leader of the study that’s focused on looking at risk factors for COVID-19 infection.

The research study is purely online, and anyone can participate.

"Well, I thought anything I can do. I’m sitting here in my house, I’m making masks, and I thought, you know, that would be fun,” said Marta Kyte from Turlock, California.

The app is giving people a way to help out in the study from their own homes by becoming a citizen scientist.

“We’re considering our participants as citizen scientists in a number of ways, Number one, they are willing to share their data,” Marcus said.

You can download the app by texting “COVID” to 41411.

Once downloaded, the initial survey takes about 15 to 20 minutes to complete. It asks about medical history, habits, and other details to help with data collection on risk factors. You can even pair Bluetooth health devices you already use.

“There’s another part that is optional where participants can opt in to share their geolocation data, which will be extremely valuable,” Marcus said.

The data can help with figuring out who you came into contact with or where you’ve been if you do test positive for COVID-19.

After the initial questionnaire, you are asked to participate daily.

“They get a very brief three question survey to ask about symptoms, household members, and social distancing,” Marcus said.

Every week and once a month, a few additional questions are asked so researchers can also collect data on how the shelter in place orders across the U.S. may affect mental health. Your phone will also send you reminders to complete these.

“Anyone, anywhere as long as they’re an adult with a smartphone, can enroll and contribute meaningful data,” Marcus said.

Every time you share personal information on the internet, there are privacy concerns, so we asked cybersecurity expert Donald McLaughlin for his thoughts.

“Anytime you share data there absolutely are inherent risks of sharing that data,” McLaughlin said.

“There is always the risk of loss of privacy, just as there is any time you go to any doctor,” Marcus agreed.

We had McLaughlin look at the privacy policy for the study, and the app, Eureka, the study lives on.

“A lot of people inherently trust the Apple store and Google store, and what we’re finding out on the news is we really shouldn't be trusting them because applications are going to slip through the cracks,” McLaughlin said. Googling apps and seeing what others have to say about it is also a good measure.

“In general, what we tell our participants is we’re not going to sell your data, we’re not going to share your data. Again we obtain explicit consent to use their data,” Marcus said.

The researchers and developers behind the COVID-19 citizen scientist study have a good track record.

“They’ve done 28 studies so far so it is a good sign,” McLaughlin said. “I’m not finding anything with data issues.”

Some apps aren’t as transparent. McLaughlin said with the pandemic going on, people should be extra vigilant in doing their research.

“Just be weary of any kind of phishing attempts with COVID-19 and coronavirus,” he said. “If you feel like it’s a red flag, don't do it. Don't download it, do the research first before downloading it.”

Longer term, Marcus hopes the COVID-19 citizen scientist study will help contribute to understanding the biology of the disease.