Can Australia fix its CovidSafe app and turn the pandemic into a 'pingdemic'?

While the federal government is currently discussing how to improve its CovidSafe app to capture more fleeting contacts due in part to the more infectious Delta variant, it is refusing technology from overseas that could speed-up notification of close contacts.The pingdemic is raging in England and Wales, with over 600,000. isolation alerts being sent to NHS users in just one week. Australia's CovidSafe app only managed to identify 17 close contacts that were not found by any other means since its launch in April last year.After being identified mostly through the QR code check-in app maintained by Service Victoria, the recent outbreak of the Delta variant virus in Victoria led to more than 40,000 close friends and family members being isolated.At large exposure sites such as AAMI Park or the MCG, thousands of contacts were identified. People who didn't know one another passed the virus to each other. Although the massive contact tracing efforts helped bring this latest outbreak under control the $7m CovidSafe contact trace app played little part in finding close contacts.I stand corrected, but I don't think there have been any cases in Victoria. If we did, it would be a very small number that are picked-up by the app. The Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews said Tuesday when lockdown was lifted.The app was developed by the Digital Transformation Agency. It has only detected 17 close contacts in New South Wales since its launch in April 2013. This number is now 561 after the agency adds 544 contacts to the exposure site at Mounties. Mounties is a club located in Sydney's south-west. The addition of these 544 contacts was made possible by the CovidSafe app data. It revealed that a positive case had been present at the venue on a date not previously identified as an exposure day. Instead of the contacts being identified via the app, tracers looked at check-ins from that day.An analysis published in Nature in May on the effectiveness of the NHS app in England & Wales between September and December 2013 found that for every positive case reported by those who alerted their contacts, there was one case of Covid-19.The study found that more people could have downloaded the app to prevent additional cases while the UK's vaccination rollout was underway.The app was used by 28% of the population (16.5 million people). More than 1.7m notifications were sent in four months to users, which is 4.2 contacts per positive instance.Australia's case numbers are quite different from the UK. There were more than 27,000 cases reported in the UK in the week ending Thursday, while only 256 cases were reported in Australia. A contact tracing app could be useful for connecting cases that have failed case interviews and QR code check-in history. There are more than 450 cases in NSW alone this week. It could speedily notify contacts to isolate them immediately to reduce their time infected.However, Australian authorities have repeatedly ruled out the possibility of moving to the same Apple/Google Exposure Notification Framework used to develop the NHS app to CovidSafe.CovidSafe uses Bluetooth wireless technology to record when someone using the app spends longer than 15 minutes within 1.5m of another user.Guardian Australia was informed this week by a spokeswoman from the federal health department that the position has not changed. The app pings users and places the responsibility on them to notify contact tracers. Contact tracers are not given a list of contacts.According to a spokesperson, Apple and Google do not permit the tracing of the source of an outbreak or follow-up functions that contact tracers perform to ensure close contacts are tested and isolated if they have been exposed. This is critical for quickly managing and responding to outbreaks.Tech experts have disputed this claim, stating that the code could be easily modified to request people to consent to contact tracers.A spokeswoman for the department confirmed that changes are being made so that the app can record more brief interactions in response the Delta variant rather than the 15 minute threshold.These parameters were determined based on medical advice. She said that the government is in consultation with the territories and states to amend the parameters of the app.The government will consider a shorter period of contact if the medical experts feel that it is necessary. This will be discussed with the territories and states.Jim Mussared (software engineer, one of the main critics) of Covidsafe said that it was difficult to determine if any changes would make an impact because the government has not been transparent with the effectiveness of the app.He stated that it was absurd to argue that the app should be part of the centralised contact trace system when the app could work independently to help people isolate.The two most important numbers to care about in the current outbreaks of Sydney and Melbourne are the total cases and the number of people in isolation. The Google Apple exposure notification framework automatically isolates people quickly and effectively.It continues to cost approximately $75,000 per month for the CovidSafe app to operate. The app was downloaded by more than 7 million people last year.Although the federal government is reluctant to admit that the app has failed to live up to expectations, it has been there for a long time. The prime minister said that it was the key to getting rid of lockdowns when it launched last April. He also compared it with sunscreen.The government released its long-awaited report on operation and effectiveness this week. It stated that it now considers the app complementary to other tools like QR code apps. However, it argues that it has seldom been required due to the low number of cases in Australia as well as the effectiveness of our contact trace processes.The report said that only 0.03% of Australians were infected during the peak pandemic, with approximately 8,170 active cases (includes those in quarantine at hotels) on 11 and 13 August 2020. The apps' ability to identify close contacts and unique individuals has been ineffective.Between April and November of last year, 735 users agreed to upload their data. 2,579 potential contacts were identified. Nearly all were either excluded from the database or found via manual contact tracing.It was just 44 people who uploaded their records between November 2020 & May this year, compared to 1,729 potential close friends.According to the report, close contacts may not be followed-up for many reasons.The report does not include information about how many of the 7 million users still use the app. Additionally, the DTA has declined freedom of information requests.NSW Health reported that only 21% of those who had received Covid-19 in their community in December 2013 had used the app. The Victorian parliament committee also concluded that there was no evidence that the app was effective after the second lockdown.States have been pushing mandatory QR code check in apps as their best method of contact tracing. On 5 July, Victoria recorded more than 5.6 million check-ins within a single day. The Service Victoria app will soon allow users to view their check-in history and compare it against alerts from exposure sites.