Google launches virtual medical research app, starting with studies in the flu and COVID-19

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By tracking adults across the U.S., researchers hope to see how respiratory diseases such as COVID-19 evolve and spread through communities, while gauging how age and different activities—such as how many daily trips a person takes outside the home—contribute to potential risk factors. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Google has launched its own virtual clinical research app for Android phones—and it's starting with studies into respiratory diseases such as COVID-19.

According to the tech giant, the app allows any user to sign up and volunteer to participate in medical research, after submitting data about themselves and answering a questionnaire. 

The goal is to furnish a platform for scientists, who can poll the system to find the people they need to help answer their research questions. And by lowering barriers to entry, Google ultimately hopes to provide a large and diverse population of potential study participants.

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In this manner, the app is similar in structure to one launched by Apple for its iPhones, iPads and smartwatches last year, which has included studies in cardiovascular health, hearing and women’s health and fertility—with one heart-focused study canvassing more than 400,000 people in less than nine months.

Google’s first project will be launched in partnership with Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital focused on respiratory infections like influenza and the novel coronavirus.

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By tracking adults across the U.S., the researchers hope to see how these diseases evolve and spread through communities, while gauging how age and different activities—such as how many daily trips a person takes outside the home—contribute to potential risk factors.

"With COVID-19 emerging alongside seasonal respiratory pathogens, research is now needed more than ever to develop more effective treatments and mitigation strategies,” said John Brownstein, Ph.D., a professor at Harvard Medical School and chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s.

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Volunteers will use Google’s app to report symptoms, any preventive measures they’ve taken and medical information such as test results. Participants’ data will be encrypted, and they will have control over what is contributed and shared; no data will be sold or shared with advertisers, Google said. In addition, the app will help users access any research findings once they are published.