Study shows wearables could detect COVID-19 earlier

Tejaswini Mishra, PhD, Research Scientist in the Department of Genetics at Stanford University School of Medicine, joins Yahoo Finance’s Alexis Christoforous to discuss the use of wearables to detect COVID-19.

Video Transcript

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Welcome back. There may be a new tool in our arsenal against COVID-19-- wearables. Researchers at Stanford University are partnering with wearable device-maker Empatica and a COVID-19 saliva test manufacturer, Clinical Reference Lab, to gauge how wearable devices like smart watches can detect the virus even before symptoms appear. Joining me now is Dr. Tejaswini Mishra. She's a research scientist at Stanford University's School of Medicine. Doctor, good to have you with us. First off, how are you using wearables to detect the virus? I'd imagine you're making use of biometrics here. Tell us more about that.

TEJASWINI MISHRA: Thank you for having me. So delighted to be here. I'm really excited to tell you about our COVID-19 wearable study. We're using biometrics measured by these consumer smartwatches, such as heart rate, skin temperature, blood oxygen saturation, activity, electrodermal activities of skin conductance. And we're looking for changes in these biometrics to then detect COVID-19 infection at a pre-symptomatic stage before people develop symptoms. And so we look, for example, increases in heart rate.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: How early can you detect these symptoms? Because we know how people who are asymptomatic, they're a large group out there, and it's really tough to wrap our arms around that particular group. And those who are asymptomatic can so much more easily, of course, spread the virus. So how good are these wearables in detecting that days in advance?

TEJASWINI MISHRA: We're able to detect it on an average of four days in advance using our algorithms, and we're able to see it as far as nine days in advance in some cases. Now, mind you, these are studies we did on symptomatic individuals. So we did an initial study that we published in November 2020.

But the study I'm here to talk about today, we're following up and doing a larger validation study, but we're also partnering with [INAUDIBLE] which supplies the home COVID-19 testing saliva kits to then test people every single day and also have the watch on them every single day. And that way, we can also catch the asymptomatic people and see whether we're able to detect COVID-19 in these people or not.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: When it comes to wearables and collecting people's data, right away the privacy flags go up. How are you over at Stanford thinking about regulatory issues that are going to arise when it comes to using wearables in such a way?

TEJASWINI MISHRA: Well, we talk to our participants. The study is monitored by an ethical review board at Stanford University. The participants consent. It's fully informed consent, so we tell them what we're going to do with their data. And we cannot use the data for any other purposes than for this study. And if we need to, we have to go back and get written consent from the participants.

And then on top of that, we have our own mobile app, our MyPhD personal health dashboard, and that has won privacy and security awards. All the data is stored. It's protected health information, and so it's stored in compliance with HIPAA laws. And we just follow all of the regulations necessary for protecting people's medical information.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: So would you be able to retrofit wearable devices already on the market or would these have to be new devices that would reach market that could do things like detect COVID-19 and other infectious diseases?

TEJASWINI MISHRA: The current devices are already pretty good at detecting COVID-19. We saw 80% of the people in our initial study, our preliminary study, we were able to detect COVID-19 in 80% of the people just wearing Fitbits. And so the current devices already work. And the cool thing about using devices that people were already wearing is that you have a year or two of retrospective data on these people. So we're able to compare their heart rate during the COVID infection to their own personal baseline and then try to see changes or elevations in heart rate compared to their own baseline. So it's a very personalized, individualized, tailored monitoring process.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: What other tech companies are using wearables in a similar fashion, Doctor?

TEJASWINI MISHRA: So Empatica is working with us. We've also had a partnership with Fitbit. Garmin is working on this. And then Oura Ring, as you might have heard, has partnered with the NBA and Formula One, and they're putting these devices on players. And it's really cool because you get COVID testing pretty regularly if you're playing on a sports team, but maybe you're getting tested once in a week.

And then maybe the day after you got tested, you are [INAUDIBLE] and start to develop-- maybe you don't have symptoms yet. And so then a watch could alert you that, hey, your heart rate is getting elevated. Maybe you want to self-isolate or get tested after a few days. And so we see it as augmenting standard clinical testing because it's continuous real-time passive monitoring. You just have to wear the device. You don't have to do anything else. And yeah, it's a great way of augmenting our gold standard clinical tests.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: What kinds of symptoms do asymptomatic people have? Because by definition, there are no symptoms. So what again is this wearable device glomming on to to decide whether or not somebody does indeed have the infection?

TEJASWINI MISHRA: Great question. Yeah. Even if you don't have symptoms, your body's still fighting an infection. Your body's trying to clear the virus. You're making tons of white blood cells to try to fight the virus. And so that's where we expect your heart rate to go up. Even if you don't have a fever, even if your skin temperature or body temperature doesn't go up, you still have a heart rate increase because your body's working a lot harder to fight these germs, and that's what we're able to detect.

Think of it as a thermometer. Your temperature is high, and you don't know why it's high, but you know that it indicates something. And so that's really what we're catching. And then the future is really, really big, and you could do any number of things with these wearable devices.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Great work that you're doing there. Really fascinating stuff. Dr. Tejawini Mishra of Stanford University School of Medicine. Best of luck with the study.