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Could A Smart Ring Be An Early Warning System For The Coronavirus?

A man is sleeping with an Oura ring on his finger in this undated photo.

Credit: Oura

Above: A man is sleeping with an Oura ring on his finger in this undated photo.

As the coronavirus pandemic increasingly puts health care and other essential workers at risk of infection, UC San Diego researchers have joined a nationwide study looking into whether a wearable device could be an early warning system for people who are getting sick.

When people go to the doctor they get their vital signs checked — like temperature and pulse — to help determine whether they are sick. But those signs only provide a snapshot of someone’s health at a particular point in time.

But what if someone’s vital signs could be tracked and recorded 24/7? That’s the idea behind a nationwide study of a ring that collects this information in real-time.

“A lot of the systems in your body, as they change — [like] when you eat or your hormones are having pulses throughout the day — that kind of thing it turns out affects your temperature,” said Benjamin Smarr a UCSD bioengineer and one of the researchers involved in the study.

“So when you have continuous temperature, instead of just knowing am I somewhere near 98 degrees or I have a fever, you can actually say, 'Is that structure the nice stable lapping waves of a healthy body ... or is it getting roiled up and a storm is coming?'”

Reported by Shalina Chatlani

Potential Tool For Essential Workers

The ring Smarr and his fellow researchers are working with was developed by Oura, a Finnish company. People who opt-in to the study wear the ring and allow their data to be collected by researchers at UC San Francisco. The data is then made anonymous and sent to UC San Diego for analysis. The device measures continuous temperature, heart rate, respiration rate and activity.

The Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose received a thousand ring kits. Marco Lee, a neurosurgeon there, said the rings could be particularly valuable for the fight against COVID-19, which can take days to show symptoms.

“A lot of symptoms in COVID19 has been reported to be very mild… sometimes we work long hours,” Lee said. “Wearing the Oura ring could spot some temperatures you may not notice, and that could hopefully prompt the person to take their symptoms more seriously.”

Already tens of thousands of people have opted-in to the study and many are health care workers.

More Work Ahead

Lee said the obvious challenge with the study is that it’s still ongoing, and it’s not clear whether the ring actually works as researchers hope. The other challenge is that there is still so much to learn about the novel coronavirus. So it might be difficult to map early symptoms to a novel coronavirus diagnosis.

But with the entire world in the grip of this pandemic, the more data the better, Lee said.

“Obviously a study in these few months is unique. I haven’t seen a pandemic personally in my whole career. But, this may not be the last pandemic I will see in my career,” he said. “So if we have more data to show how we can minimize deaths that’s great. But this unique time is something we need to grasp and do as many studies as possible.”

Listen to this story by Shalina Chatlani.

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Photo of Shalina Chatlani

Shalina Chatlani
Science and Technology Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover all things science and technology — from the biotech industry in San Diego to rooftop solar energy on new homes. I'm interested in covering the human side of science and technology, like barriers to entry for people of color or gender equity issues on biotech boards.

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