NIH to fund 7 digital health projects aimed at COVID-19

The National Institutes of Health has picked seven companies and academic centers to help develop digital health solutions aimed at the COVID-19 pandemic—including smartphone apps, wearables and big data programs to mitigate the personal and public health impacts of the novel coronavirus.

Each one-year contract includes two phases: an initial award for feasibility testing, followed by an option for additional development funding. If all seven progress to the second phase, the total value of awards would reach $22.8 million. 

The selected projects include an effort by IBM to provide sophisticated digital contact tracing, alongside verifiable methods for reporting a person’s health status following exposure and testing.

Meanwhile, Evidation Health has proposed an artificial intelligence-powered early warning system for COVID-19, which would take in a wide range of patient data from questionnaires and wearable devices and potentially differentiate cases from the flu. 

“The tools these organizations plan to develop could allow us to use containment efforts, like COVID-19 testing, social distancing and quarantine, precisely when and where they’re needed,” said Ned Sharpless, director of the NIH’s National Cancer Institute, which helped select the seven winners from nearly 200 submissions. “That might let more people return to less restricted living and reduce the risk of devastating local outbreaks.”

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iCrypto was chosen for its smartphone-based platform for proving a person’s test results and vaccination status. Meanwhile, Vibrent Health aims to use mobile apps for identifying COVID-19 cases and using WiFi to perform contract tracing.

physIQ is planning an AI-based monitoring platform tied to wearable devices that would track an individual’s health changes in the days following a positive test result—while Shee Atiká Enterprises plans to integrate Bluetooth-equipped thermometers and pulse oximeters into a system designed for low-resource settings and underserved populations.

Finally, the University of California, San Francisco, is developing a GPS-based contact tracing tool for alerting users about potential exposures, and identifying businesses that were visited by someone who later tested positive for COVID-19. The system would then connect those businesses with public health departments for implementing strategies to reduce the spread of the virus.

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“Digital health technologies built around smartphones and wearable devices will play an essential role in guiding us through the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Bruce Tromberg, director of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering. 

“These platforms can acquire large amounts of data from many different sources spanning from testing technologies to sensors,” Tromberg said. “When this information is analyzed using cutting-edge computational and machine learning methods, everyone will have access to powerful new tools for reducing the risk of infection and returning to normal activities.”

In a separate effort, the NIBIB awarded a contract to CareEvolution for SAFER-COVID, a digital health solution that uses self-reported symptoms, wearable-generated data, electronic health records and test results to determine when users should return to work and normal social activities.

All of the proposed digital health tools will be developed using multiple data sources, and each participating organization will share data and other assets through an NIH-supported central data hub, in ways that protect individuals’ privacy. In addition, researchers developing further projects will have access to data stored in the hub, the NIH said.