365 days ago the Government was about to finish the tests of the Spanish infection tracking app that was taking place on the island of La Gomera. The results that the technicians saw gave rise to hope: for each fictitious contagion that was communicated to the app, it detected 6.4 risk contacts, twice that of the trackers. Given that at that point in the pandemic, vaccines were still far away and the only solution to avoid mass confinements was track, trace and trace, Radar COVID was positioned as a technology that could help save lives, based on a development by European researchers that they put the focus on privacy and security.
From the success of the vaccination to the lack of control of infections in two weeks: why are the waves in Spain so explosive?
After announcing the positive data of the pilot project, Pedro Sánchez made Radar COVID available to the communities on July 30, 2020. His mission was to notify its users after a risk contact so that they could self-confine until they could take a test, helping thus to cut the chains of contagion.
But the second wave arrived and the app was not ready to help. Google and Apple only allow one tracking application per country to better control possible counterfeits, so communities had to hook into the central government system to launch it in their territory. That process took much longer than expected.
A good part of the communities were connected at the beginning of September but some regional governments, especially those of Madrid and Catalonia, delayed their start-up for more than two months. The administration led by Isabel Díaz Ayuso completed the technical integration with the central system on September 2. However, he wanted to make a new pilot for the app despite the Government’s notice that it was “unnecessary.” The Generalitat simply prioritized its own technical tools while putting aside COVID Radar, based on the digital tracking system that almost all European countries were installing and that would end up being interoperable between them.
Then came the Christmas hangover and with it the third wave, but the COVID Radar system was not greased and it did not help prevent curfews and business closures. The app was failing: only 2% of the positives used it to anonymously alert people with whom they had had risky contacts (15 minutes within two meters). The Vice President of the Government Nadia Calviño asked the communities to make an effort to inform Spaniards about the existence of the app and, above all, to distribute the necessary codes so that those infected can report their positive status to the app and activate its alert system. .
“It is essential to accelerate the distribution of these codes so that the app can fully deploy its effect and contribute to the work of tracking and fighting the spread of the virus,” Calviño requested at the end of January. Radar COVID had been developed in his ministry, under the supervision of the Secretary of State for Digitalization and Artificial Intelligence (SEDIA). But those in charge of implementing it in the health system should be the communities.
Then there was still time. The app had failed to be a notable factor in its first months of action, but vaccination had just begun and experts knew that new waves of infections would arrive before achieving herd immunity.
The fourth wave was mild, which downplayed the fact that Radar COVID’s penetration percentage had not improved at all. But the fifth wave has hit hard. The numbers of positives already reach the levels of the second while Radar COVID not only has not increased its collaboration in the tracking. It is used less than ever.
Radar COVID, the great forgotten by young people in the fifth wave
The accumulated incidence in Spain has already reached the levels of last February and continues to skyrocket. But as the number of infected in Spain grows, the percentage of them who use the app to notify people who have been within two meters of them for at least 15 minutes decreases. The figures have fallen from 2% in March to 1% this July, according to official data published by SEDIA.
The situation also contrasts with the important component of infections among young people of this fifth wave. In the 12 to 19 age group, the cumulative incidence is 1,311.73 points and that of 20 to 29, 1,581.39, three times the national average. Despite the fact that these are segments of the population that should not present problems when using this digital technology, the reality is that Radar COVID is helping less than ever to stop the infections.
The Government continues to signal the autonomous communities. “If the percentage of introduction of positive codes in the app is low, it is mainly because many communities are not delivering codes,” Executive sources explain to elDiario.es. “Our job is to put COVID Radar into operation and deliver the codes requested by the communities, and we are complying with that.”
The same sources point out the great difference between citizens who notify the app of their positive as a signal to measure the almost zero collaboration on the part of some of them. While in Asturias the accumulated number of positives who have used the app to alert their infections is 8.5%, in others such as Andalusia it remains at 0.05%.
This medium has contacted several communities to ask about their protocols to deliver the contagion codes to citizens. All have ensured that they communicate them automatically. “There is an instruction by the Andalusian Health Service so that the app code is given every time a positive is detected,” explain, for example, sources from the Junta de Andalucía. “This instruction is constantly being remembered so that it does not fall into oblivion,” they emphasize.
However, the little collaboration of regional governments with the central government to implement the contagion tracking app emerges in other details. One of them is the total absence of data in the section “contagion codes delivered by the autonomous communities to citizens” of the official statistics page of Radar COVID. That transparency tool was launched in January and still does not show the numbers of codes delivered. Government sources explain that the absence of data is due to the fact that the communities are not communicating them.
Both the pilot and the subsequent definitive implementation were awarded with emergency contracts to the multinational Indra. In total, the Government has invested just over two million euros in Radar COVID.
Tracking technology works
The problems of Radar COVID have to do with the scarce implantation that the app has had among the population, not with the technology. The Spanish app is based on an open source development prepared by a consortium of European researchers later adapted by Google and Apple to the Android and iOS platforms. This development has been tested in independent experiments and by several European countries that have implemented them. So much in Germany What in the United Kingdom Studies have been published that conclude that the key to improving its effectiveness is to expand the user base, because the technology works correctly in the vast majority of cases.
One of those that has achieved greater penetration among the population is precisely the United Kingdom, where it exceeds 30%. With the current explosion of the Delta variant, the app has once again demonstrated its effectiveness, sending more than 500,000 risk contact alerts during the last week. The government of Boris Johnson faces, in fact, the opposite problem than the Spanish: its citizens are deleting it from their phones because they are receiving many alerts and do not want to confine themselves again, pick up The Guardian. Technicians work to make the app less “responsive” and try to prevent users from removing it.
The people who have the app, use it and upload their codes. But if you don’t have more users it is impossible for you to have more uploaded codes. The summary is that the only thing 1% says is that penetration is very low
– Researcher who led the development of European contagion tracking technology
In Spain the Government does not make public the data of active users of Radar COVID. It only publishes that the app has been downloaded 7.5 million times in total, a number that is certainly much higher than the number of people who have the app downloaded and activated to register their contacts.
The estimates are that the real penetration of the tracking app in the Spanish population barely reaches 3 or 4%. With this background, the 1% of those infected who report their positive to Radar COVID “is all you can expect from the app”, explains to elDiairo.es Carmela Troncoso, one of the researchers who led the European project that illuminated the technology of contact tracing. “The people who have the app, use it and upload their codes. But if you don’t have more users, it is impossible for you to have more codes uploaded. The summary is that the only 1% says is that penetration is very low.”
Troncoso remembers that an alert sent can be equivalent to infections prevented and therefore lives saved. In Spain, since Radar COVID was put into operation, more than 67,000 users have notified their close contacts that they had been infected with coronavirus. “The apps obviously have not stopped the pandemic, but they have contributed their bit when it comes to avoiding infections, increasing the tracking radius, and being faster,” says the researcher.