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What is contact tracing? How does contact tracing in India work? All your questions answered

The basic agenda of contact tracing is to ensure that the virus does not spread any further, therefore helping break the chain of transmission.

June 10, 2020 / 11:37 AM IST

Contact tracing is perhaps the second most widely used term you may have heard in connection with coronavirus. As India shifts from Lockdown 5.0 to Unlock 1.0, the number of coronavirus cases is expected to increase.

At such a time, proper contact tracing, something that helps curb the spread of COVID-19, becomes crucial. 

But what does it entail? How is India managing to do it? Here are your questions answered.

What is contact tracing?

Contact tracing is finding people who could have come in contact with an infected person. In the case of coronavirus, when a person tests positive, they are first isolated so that the infection does not spread any further. The authorities, with help from the infected person, try and find out the number of people who may have come in contact with them.


COVID-19 Vaccine

Frequently Asked Questions

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How does a vaccine work?

A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.

How many types of vaccines are there?

There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.

What does it take to develop a vaccine of this kind?

Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.

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These individuals are home-quarantined and are followed up for 14 days, which is the incubation period for the coronavirus. If these quarantined people show any sign or symptoms of coronavirus, they are immediately taken to the COVID-19 testing centres for a checkup.

The basic agenda of contact tracing is to ensure that the virus does not spread any further, therefore, helping break the chain of transmission. 

How does contact tracing work?

As mentioned earlier, the authorities get in touch with all possible individuals who may have come in contact with the infected person.

It is difficult to reach out to all these contacts, considering the fact that people will be out in the open as the lockdown restrictions slowly get lifted.

In such a situation, mobile apps are useful. The government has launched a contact tracing app for coronavirus called Aarogya Setu. The app uses the smartphone’s GPS location to keep a track of the coronavirus-infected person. Aarogya Setu, at the time of writing this, has been downloaded by over 12.55 crore Indians.

How does an app like Aarogya Setu helps break the chain of transmission?

1. When an individual is tested positive, the authorities suggest close contacts or persons living with the infected individual to download the Aarogya Setu app and take an assessment test regularly.

2. If the person or a close contact shows any symptom related to coronavirus, it becomes easier for the government to trace and track the person using their smartphone’s location.

Concerned about your privacy?

Aarogya Setu has had its fair share of controversy with many raising concerns of data privacy. French hacker and cybersecurity expert who goes by the moniker Elliot Alderson has raised alarm on Twitter over alleged security issues in the app. This was followed by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s comment stating that Aarogya Setu was nothing more than a “sophisticated surveillance system”.

The government said the data is encrypted and saved for a very limited period of time. The Aarogya Setu app data is anonymised and all personal data is encrypted. There’s an anonymous device ID that is used to interact, and as per the government, all data remains on the phone only.

It also claims that most of the data would be deleted in 30 days and information pertaining to COVID-positive people would be deleted in 60 days. Once the coronavirus is gone, the government will delete all the data. 

Track our dedicated LIVE blog to stay updated on developments related to Coronavirus pandemic here

What are the other options?

Reliance Jio released a nation-wide tool called MyJio Coronavirus Self-diagnostic Tool for all Indian citizens. The tool, available on the MyJio app, aims at assisting the government’s measures to contain and mitigate the impact of coronavirus in several ways. The MyJio Coronavirus Self-diagnostic Tool provides a simple and accessible national platform for citizens to declare their health parameters, and be guided to scientifically recommended next-steps based on their risk-status. 

The back-end data being captured by this national platform can serve as a powerful information source that can give visibility to policymakers and administration officials about the emerging situation on the ground.

The tool also aims at having periodic push-campaigns to check-in with citizens about any change in their health situation, and reassess risk and subsequent actions.

Apple and Google too have come together and released a coronavirus contact tracing tool that works with iOS and Android. The tool is not an app, and developers or nations will have to embed the API within their own coronavirus tracing app.

In the case of India’s Aarogya Setu, app developers will have to incorporate the tool within the app to make it work.

However, the Apple and Google COVID-19 app tech will not work with Aarogya Setu.

The problem lies in the underlying structure. While the Aarogya Setu traces contacts using user location, Apple and Google’s Exposure Notification API only uses the smartphone’s Bluetooth functionality. 

Both companies have maintained that privacy and preventing governments from using the system to compile data on citizens was the primary goal behind launching the API.

The system, therefore, uses Bluetooth signals from phones to detect encounters and does not use or store GPS location data. The API prohibits access to location data.

When two people are in close proximity, the devices will share an anonymous identifier. If an individual is tested COVID-19 positive, the device will transmit a list of people the user came in contact with and alert them. The companies further state that the identification key does not include any location data. 

The guidelines further state that Apple and Google will not share any location data of users unless the user has been reported COVID-19 positive or they have come in contact/ proximity with a coronavirus patient.

This could be the reason why despite the Exposure Notification API being launched, it is not available in India.

Regardless of so many tools and apps being available, it is best for people to stay indoors and stay safe to avoid being infected by the coronavirus.

Government guidelines have made it mandatory for people to wear masks and maintain social distancing. People have also been informed of washing their hands regularly with soap or a sanitiser.

In case you show any symptoms, it is in your best interest to get tested and isolate yourself to help curb the spread.

Follow our full coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic here.

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Pranav Hegde
first published: Jun 9, 2020 11:02 am
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