May 5, 2020

While the campus will remain empty and quiet for the foreseeable future, a handful of researchers are busy at work addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. The group formed in response to the Boettcher Foundation, a Colorado based philanthropic organization, fund of $1M for biotechnology-related projects across the state. 

     Terrance Boult, El Pomar’s chair of innovation and security and a professor of Computer Science, has come up with a research idea: an app that would address the spread of the coronavirus. He reached out to the campus research mailing list in search of collaborators for his idea.

     Yanyan Zhuang, assistant professor of Computer Science, was the first researcher to join Boult and is the principal investigator on the project. There are additional professors of Biochemistry, Computer Science and Counseling Psychology, and a Medical Science PhD student, on the team. 

     The team applied for the Boettcher Foundation fund soon after it was announced in early April. 

     The app that the team is working on is called ATEST, which stands for App for Test Enhancement, Support, and Tracing. It is based on the concept of patient tracing, a strategy used in healthcare and disease treatment to contain the spread of disease. 

     Patient tracing, also called “contact tracing,” requires patients with suspected or confirmed infection to recall everyone they have been in contact with. The purpose is to identify and inform possibly infected people, allowing them to take measures to slow the spread of a disease. 

     Traditionally, this method is employed through an interview by public health staff. ATEST aims to digitize that process. Unlike many projects developed in response to COVID-19, ATEST has an interface that allows health care workers to see where people have been, entering people’s locations into the geospatial system of the application. 

     ATEST also uses software to enhance the accuracy of patient tracing. Standard patient tracing relies on people’s memories to answer where they have been, but geospatial tracking would allow the app to record locations of possible contact with infection. 

     Additionally, the app aims to increase the efficiency of pooled testing, a disease testing technology developed in the 1940s.  

     This testing process involves collecting samples from numerous people and completing one test with the combined specimens. If the single test will come back negative, this means none of the people are positive for the virus.  

     The pooled testing process allows healthcare workers to assess large groups of people. According to Boult, the ATEST app would make the testing 8-20 times more efficient.  

     Relying on large amounts of personal information from many individuals raises concerns of privacy and protection. Zhuang, who specializes in privacy/systems research, said that the app will be protected with encryption, preventing users’ location data or information from being seen by the research team.  

     “Even if a hacker hacks into our database, he or she will have no way to figure out the trace of a certain person,” Zhuang said.  

     The team will not know whether they will receive funding from the Boettcher Foundation until mid-May, but they are moving on with the project immediately. According to Boult, they are currently pursuing other avenues of funding and the beta model is expected to be released this summer.       The app will be free, and they are hoping for a wide distribution. The team is also currently looking for student researchers to join the project.