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COVID-19 ‘Citizen Science’ Initiative

April 2, 2020 - May 31, 2020

New COVID-19 ‘Citizen Science’ Initiative Lets Any Adult with a Smartphone Help to Fight Coronavirus

UCSF Researchers Aim to Enroll One Million Individuals for Real-Time Epidemiology

To help fight the novel coronavirus now plaguing humanity, a new initiative by UC San Francisco physician-scientists, dubbed COVID-19 Citizen Science (CCS), will allow anyone in the world age 18 or over to become a citizen scientist advancing understanding of the disease.

The spread of coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has varied across individuals and regions, and the factors that determine how it affects individuals and populations are not well understood. A critical mass of CCS participants uploading information though the app, launched on March 26, 2020, could help data-crunching researchers gain insight into how the virus is spreading and identify ways to predict and reduce the number of new infections, according to Gregory Marcus, MD, MAS, professor in the Department of Medicine at UCSF and a co-leader of CCS.

Based around a smartphone app, information on the study can be accessed via (if prompted, enter the study key: covid) or by texting “COVID” to 41411.

Marcus said the researchers’ hope is for the new study to “go viral” – in a good way – with a goal to ultimately enroll more than 1 million individuals around the world.

“We are asking each participant to share the link to recruit at least five others,” Marcus said. “We want to demonstrate that the number of people signing up for this scientific study and contributing their data can increase exponentially, faster than the disease itself.” To illustrate this hoped-for exponential growth, the researchers plan to create and share a data visualization that maps enrollment in CCS in real time, which Marcus hopes will show study participation outpacing the global spread of the virus.

With widespread social distancing in place, and with quarantine and isolation for some, public health studies can be challenging, Marcus said, but all that’s needed to join CCS is the link and a smartphone to download the mobile phone-based app. Once enrolled, participants will be asked to complete an initial 10- to 15-minute survey about their health and daily habits. Follow-up questions, delivered by push notification or text message on an ongoing basis, are expected to require five to 15 minutes per week.

Participants will be also given the option of providing nearly continuous geolocation (GPS) data, and soon, additional data from Fitbit or other Bluetooth-enabled biomonitoring devices, including blood pressure, weight, blood oxygen levels, body temperature, exercise and sleep.

In the long term, the collective participation of committed individuals in CCS will help identify behaviors, influences and factors that increase or decrease the risk of infection or that affect outcomes after infection, Marcus said. The greater the number of participants, the greater the likelihood of statistically valid findings emerging from the study.


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