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Lifting coronavirus restrictions: The role of therapeutics, testing, and contact-tracing apps

Written by Costica Dumbrava,

© Liliya / Adobe Stock

The key to tackling the coronavirus pandemic is a combination of safe and readily available vaccines that provide everyone with immunity, as well as effective treatments that work to cure the disease in all infected people. Short of this, the ongoing public health crisis requires a mix of non-pharmaceutical measures aimed at reducing the spread of the virus, including identifying and isolating cases, testing, contact tracing and broader containment measures.

With the number of Covid-19 cases in the EU falling steadily since the beginning of May, most Member States have begun to ease restrictions on free movement and social gatherings. However, lifting restrictions in the absence of vaccines and treatments requires enhanced monitoring measures, such as an expanded testing capacity and improved contact tracing, including through the use of appropriate digital technologies.

There is the hope that the impressive mobilisation of resources and expertise will soon lead to breakthroughs in the quest for safe vaccines and effective treatments for Covid-19. However, it may take a while before such therapeutics are made available to everyone that needs them. Beyond dealing with challenges relating to scientific knowledge and a cumbersome development process, there is a need to address questions regarding mass manufacturing and fair distribution. Given the uncertainties and challenges associated with Covid-19 therapeutics, it may be wise to moderate expectations in order to foster resilience and preserve public trust.

Expanding testing capacity and updating testing strategies to support disease monitoring at population level is crucial for minimising the risk of new outbreaks in the context of relaxing containment measures. Using antibody tests to monitor the disease is a promising avenue, though more evidence is needed to demonstrate the reliability of these tests, in particular given current knowledge gaps regarding people’s immunity to the virus. Moreover, linking antibody testing to relaxing restrictions for individuals, as suggested by the idea of establishing ‘immunity passports’, raises additional concerns about non-discrimination, fairness and mass surveillance.

Together with identifying and isolating new cases (through testing), the rapid and efficient tracing of people who have recently been in contact with infected people is essential for reducing the spread of the virus. Automating, at least partially, the laborious task of contact tracing with the help of contact-tracing apps has been advocated as a key measure to enable the gradual lifting of restrictions. The ongoing debate on contact-tracing apps in the EU seems to be converging towards a preference for voluntary contact-tracing apps that rely on proximity/bluetooth data (as opposed to location data) and comply with EU rules on data protection and privacy. The debate continues on the specific technical design of such apps (e.g. centralised versus decentralised systems), though the majority of initiatives in Member States seem to rely on decentralised systems. There are nevertheless a number of open questions regarding contact-tracing apps, in particular on their reliability, usability, data protection and privacy, epidemiological value and broader social implications.

There are very few certainties regarding the Covid-19 pandemic, but perhaps one certainty is that no isolated measure or silver-bullet solution is likely to solve all aspects of the crisis. A flexible and integrated strategy, in terms of complementary tools and measures, as well as a coordinated approach across the EU, will be crucial in enabling the gradual lifting of restrictions and a return to the (new) normal.

Read the complete in-depth analysis on ‘Lifting coronavirus restrictions: The role of therapeutics, testing, and contact-tracing apps‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

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