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Duke students build app to combat coronavirus spread

College students have watched the spread of the coronavirus with a range of shifting emotions: dismissal at first, then horror as the virus closed campuses and canceled travel plans. 

One group of Duke students, however, started thinking about the virus earlier than most. For the past month, first-year Shehzan Maredia and several other students have been developing an app, called ContainIt, to help slow the spread of the virus by telling users when they are at risk of having been exposed.

“I realized the coronavirus is going to get worse as time goes on. Like, it was pretty evident just based on the other countries,” Maredia said. “My expertise has been in the software side of things, so I wanted to build a software tool that could help address these issues.”

Maredia, who said he has always been interested in “building products that can really make an impact,” realized that the biggest problem was the virus’ long incubation period and the lack of testing. Together, these factors meant people could spread the disease without knowing they were infected. 

“You might be in line with someone at Costco, and they might pass coronavirus to you, and maybe five days later they were tested and tested positive for coronavirus, but they couldn’t tell you to self-isolate or go get tested, so you might just be walking around infecting more people,” he said. “That’s why it’s growing at such a high rate.”

ContainIt is aimed at addressing this problem.

Users’ data will be stored on their own devices for privacy reasons, but if someone indicates that they have tested positive for COVID-19, their data will be sent to ContainIt’s servers. The app will use this information to calculate a “risk factor” for other users who have been near that person, taking into account how close they were to the infected person and how long that contact lasted, among other parameters.

The app’s developers hope that ContainIt’s notifications will help users decide when they need to self-isolate or get tested for the disease. 

ContainIt is not yet available, but Maredia and his team have finished the initial version and uploaded a demo video to YouTube. They also developed a proof-of-concept website that gives users information based on their zip code. Inputting 27708, the zip code for student mailboxes on West Campus, shows that five users within a 5-mile radius have reported positive test results, and another five have reported symptoms of the virus.

Maredia initially worked on the project with first-year James Taylor, sophomores Andres Montoya-Aristizabal and Daniel Winkelman, and Erik Yan, who is pursuing a master of science in global health at Duke Kunshan University. He wrote in an email that the team is currently growing, though some of the initial members have not had the time to continue.

He also credited Steve McClelland, executive in residence in the Pratt School of Engineering and core faculty in Innovation & Entrepreneurship, and Howie Rhee, managing director at Fuqua’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and managing director of student and alumni affairs for I&E, for giving the team guidance throughout the project.

Taylor wrote in an email to The Chronicle that the app is intended to “inform individuals about this disease but also slow its effect on the broader population.” Maredia said that there is a reason to believe it will work.

“People have used crowd-sourced, self-reported platforms in other countries, and it has proven to be successful,” Maredia said. He pointed to Singapore, where a government-developed app uses Bluetooth signals identify users who have been exposed to the virus, a technique called contract tracing. 

Maredia said the team hopes to eventually include more information in the risk factor, such as whether users have been in contact with another user who has been near an infected person. They also want to create a system that assigns risk factors to users based on self-reported symptoms because of the lack of available testing in the United States. 

The team has not yet launched the app because the iOS App Store is selective about what apps it allows, Maredia said. They have reached out to experts at Duke and in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health, hoping to set up a partnership that would convince Apple to approve their product, but nothing has happened yet. 

“I think a partnership with Duke would be really good because everyone working on it currently is a Duke student, either undergrad or masters,” Maredia said. “I think it would be really cool, coming from Duke, that this app could be launched and really help make an impact.”

In the meantime, the app was a Spotlight Project at Datavant’s Pandemic Response Hackathon, which ran from March 27 to 29, in the “Epidemiology and Science of Disease” category., according to an email from the team to Maredia that he provided to The Chronicle.

It has also been a way for the students working on it to do something about the virus, even after it upended their personal lives. 

“After being sent home from school, I felt sidelined watching the pandemic progress,” Winkelman wrote in an email to The Chronicle. “I am fortunate enough to have good health and a financially-secure family, but a disaster is happening in slow motion, and all I could do was watch everyone else struggle.”

Winkelman called working on ContainIt “a way for me to do my part in fighting this pandemic.”

Monyota-Aristizabal wrote that working on the project has been exciting and meaningful.

“If this can help someone’s life be a little easier or even save a life,” he wrote, “I would be over the moon!” 

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