Apple launches new smartwatch study to detect COVID-19 early, especially in at-risk groups

Photo of wrist with Apple watch
Participants in the study will receive an Apple Watch to wear for six months and will be asked to fill out online health surveys each week. (Apple)

Hey Siri, can the Apple Watch predict someone's risk of contracting COVID-19?

Apple has launched a study to determine just that. The Apple Respiratory Study will rely on the wearable’s optical heart sensor and self-reported weekly surveys to uncover patterns among participants who end up catching COVID, the flu and other viral infections.

The study—led by researchers from Apple, the University of Washington School of Medicine, the Seattle Flu Study and the Brotman Baty Institute for Precision Medicine—began recruiting Seattle-area iPhone owners to participate this week.

Researchers are especially interested in studying people ages 22 and older who are at an increased risk of infection because of their frontline jobs or group-living situations, as well as those from Latinx, Black and Indigenous communities, which have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

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Each participant will receive one of the latest versions of the Apple Watch to wear day and night for six months. The device will track heart rate, blood oxygen levels, physical activity and sleep throughout that time.

 Participants will also be asked to log into the Apple Research app each week to answer questions about their lifestyle and to log any respiratory symptoms.

If any participants get sick during the study period, they’ll undergo an extra analysis by the Apple Watch, and the research team will provide at-home nasal swab testing for COVID, the flu and other acute respiratory illnesses.

At the same time, researchers will be testing whether receiving simple behavioral nudges like handwashing reminders can help decrease an Apple Watch user's likelihood of contracting viral infections.

“The hope is that physiological signals from the Apple Watch will make it possible to identify people who are falling ill and get them tested quickly so they can self-isolate and break the chain of transmission of the virus in the community,” Jay Shendure, a professor of genome sciences at the UW School of Medicine and director of the Brotman Baty Institute, said in a statement when the study was announced in September.

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The Apple Respiratory Study follows in the smartwatch-tracked footsteps of a handful of other similar studies before it. Last August, Fitbit released preliminary findings of its own study, reporting that its wearable device was able to detect almost half of all positive COVID cases at least one day before symptoms set in.

And in October, researchers from the Scripps Research Translational Institute said their smartwatch-equipped DETECT study and accompanying smartphone app, both launched the previous March, had successfully identified patterns in heart rate, sleep quality and activity levels that were linked to new COVID infections.