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Pandemic fighting tool developed at Hack Reactor gets new life

Hack Reactor

Pandemic fighting tool developed at Hack Reactor gets new life

By Sarah Kuta for Hack Reactor

An innovative public health tool developed at Hack Reactor is more relevant than ever during the coronavirus pandemic. The Germ Theory app, developed in 2014 during the Ebola crisis in Africa, has the power to save lives during this most recent infectious disease outbreak by tracking the spread of coronavirus from person to person.

Hack Reactor students Supriya Bhat, Natalie Meurer, Jose Merino, Jameson Gamble and Ryo Osawa built the app six years ago while working alongside former Hack Reactor staff member Ryan Stellar, Harvard public health scientist Eric Feigl-Ding, UI designer Bronwen Marshall-Bass and technologist Erin DeRuggiero. The team used Python, Spark, Node, PostGreSQL, Sequelize, Express, Ionic, Cordova, Bootstrap, Angular, Travis Continuous Integration and Heroku to develop the app. (If this type of hands-on project inspires you, considering enrolling in our coding bootcamp or coding bootcamp online.)

The team initially developed the app in response to the Ebola crisis that devastated West Africa from 2014 to 2016. The deadly Ebola virus led to more than 11,300 deaths in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, with the total number of cases estimated at more than 28,600.

As with all highly contagious infectious diseases, Ebola started small with just one patient, a toddler infected by bats in a small village in Guinea. But the disease quickly took on a life of its own, spreading for “patient zero” to other people in the village, then to Guinea’s capital city and later to the neighboring countries of Sierra Leone and Liberia. Eventually, it even spread to Italy, Mali, Nigeria, Sengal, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The Ebola crisis, and now the coronavirus pandemic, highlighted the difficulties public health authorities have in tracking the spread of the virus from one person to the next, a process known as contact tracing. Since some patients do not show symptoms within the first few days of being infected — or not at all — they may unknowingly spread the disease to family members, coworkers, fellow students or anyone they interact with.

After the person is diagnosed with the disease, public health officials must undertake the monstrous task of trying to retrace the person’s steps and notify every person the patient may have come into contact with about the exposure. This helps prevent further spread of the disease, since these contacts can now take steps to self-quarantine or self-isolate themselves. Of course, one infected patient may expose hundreds of even thousands of people to the disease, depending on their daily routine or hobbies. This scale makes contact tracing challenging in the best of circumstances; during a pandemic, it’s downright overwhelming.

Contact tracing requires hundreds of thousands of man hours and lots of moving parts. Plus, contact tracing only works in response to a diagnosis — it’s basically playing catch up, after the infected person has already come into contact with others. Germ Theory aims to simplify these steps and help proactively prevent exposures by using location data from users’ phones. Based on the user’s movements and infection data, the app can create heat maps of high-risk areas and evaluate the likelihood that a user is infected.

When the Hack Reactor team created Germ Theory six years ago, they pointed out that it could be useful for fighting the spread of diseases like measles, whooping cough and influenza. They never could have imagined that the 2020 coronavirus pandemic was in their future, nor could potential investors or collaborators.

“Our Germ Theory contact tracing app was a bold idea at the time,” says Feigl-Ding. “However, when pitched, tech investors mostly laughed at the premise that Ebola or some pandemic plague would ever ravage downtown San Francisco or New York City or DC. Nobody is laughing now.”

Today, DeRuggiero and Feigl-Ding are breathing new life into Germ Theory in hopes that it can make a difference in the fight against coronavirus. They’ve made it open source and are in talks with potential collaborators.

“We decided that making it open source was the best way to go, so that other organizations who wanted to improve upon what we'd built could easily do so,” DeRuggiero says.

DeRuggiero points out that COVID-19 is much worse than Ebola in several ways. For starters, it was easier to test and quarantine people for Ebola. It also spread at lower rates than COVID-19, though the virality of coronavirus is still a moving target.

“Bottom line, COVID is three times more viral and much easier to contract through droplets that can become airborne,” she says. “This is why masks are so important, as is distancing appropriately.”

COVID-19 is also much harder to track because the majority of people who get the virus have very mild symptoms or none at all. Testing levels also vary from state to state, which means the virus is spreading faster than public health officials can track it.

All this only further emphasizes the importance of collaborative, forward-thinking solutions like Germ Theory. Unless we harness the power of technology — and use our collective common sense — the pandemic is only going to get worse, DeRuggerio says.

“Unless widespread testing and contract tracing occurs, it will continue to spread until 70 to 80 percent of the population has been infected and there's herd immunity or a safe and effective vaccine, which is still years away from being a reality,” DeRuggiero says. “Mobile technology can absolutely help trace historic movement and alert others who were in the same place that someone tested positive who had been within your radius.”