One of the most challenging aspects of the novel coronavirus disease is its rapid person-to-person transmission. Consequently, it is critical for governments to swing into action quickly to physically trace and quarantine persons who have come in contact with a COVID-19 positive case. It is a daunting task for the already strained healthcare resources. To ease that situation, researchers from EPFL and ETH Zurich have developed a digital contact tracing technology by working closely with a large number of European colleagues. They are now very close to releasing a solution called DP-3T (Decentralized Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing).

The DP-3T project is supported by the Swiss Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH), and the pan-European open source technology will be adopted by the Swiss government. FOPH Director-General Pascal Strupler said an app based on EPFL’s DP-3T concept will be ready by May 11. It will “leverage the new Google and Apple Contact Tracing APIs as soon as they are available,” he added. In Switzerland, the development of the project is being coordinated nationally as part of the National COVID-19 Science Task Force of the Swiss Federal Council.

Many scientists and researchers feel that contact tracing will endanger privacy of individuals. Their main objection is to the centralization of data because that could lead to data abuse. However, the DP-3T project is backed by more than 300 scientists around the world because it offers a secure, decentralized, privacy-preserving proximity tracing system based on the Bluetooth Low Energy standard. Data is retained on the handset instead of being sent to a central database. This aspect was emphasized by Jim Larus, dean of EPFL’s School of Computer and Communication Sciences: “The innovative efforts of the EPFL-ETH Zurich team, along with their collaborators, show that it is not necessary to trade off personal privacy to put in place an effective technological response to the COVID-19 crisis.”

The decentralized approach toward contact tracing has been endorsed by Apple and Google. Both companies have said that only truly decentralized apps would be able to run continuously using Bluetooth on Apple and Android handsets.

While the DP-3T app is in development, it is already available as an open-source protocol on GitHub, where discussions about DP-3T’s source code are introducing a great deal of transparency to the project.