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Containing coronavirus outbreaks via app

IT solutions can help to contain the coronavirus pandemic. Image: Pixabay / Pexels

Smartphones can make an important contribution to containing the coronavirus pandemic. The Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research (HZI) developed an app for disease control in 2014, which proved its worth during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Soon, German health authorities will also be able to use this app to track SARS-CoV-2.

Infectious diseases spread rapidly. The current coronavirus pandemic shows this: within a few weeks, the virus has spread from China to the whole world. More than 600,000 people have been infected and the number of new infections is growing exponentially.

IT systems can help control pandemics such as SARS-CoV-2. Epidemiologists at the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research (HZI) proved this six years ago: In autumn 2014 - at the height of the Ebola epidemic in Nigeria - the head of the Department of Epidemiology at the HZI, Gérard Krause, and a colleague had the idea of setting up a mobile information system for monitoring epidemics. This was the starting signal for the SORMAS (Surveillance, Outbreak Response Management and Analysis System) app, which scientists at the HZI developed together with partners such as the Robert Koch Institute, the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine, the Hasso Plattner Institute and SAP.

Gérard Krause, Head of the Department of Epidemiology at the HZI, was in charge of developing SORMAS.Picture: HZI / Kruger

Detect infected people and contact persons faster

The system runs as a mobile phone app and is particularly suitable for use in regions with weak infrastructure. SORMAS uses mobile phones to quickly and comprehensively forward information about infected people and their contact persons to the health authorities. Authorities can then make risk assessments and coordinate measures to combat the epidemic. "The whole thing works networked in real time and synchronizes itself continuously. The number of registered contact persons can – following the snowball principle - skyrocket in a short time. This would no longer be easily manageable with paper or classic Excel lists alone," explains Gérard Krause.

The app can now be used for 20 different infectious diseases: from Ebola, dengue fever and yellow fever to measles, cholera and rabies. "SORMAS has already been used in very large outbreaks - including Lassa fever, monkey pox and meningitis. Currently, the system covers 400 counties with about 85 million people in Nigeria and Ghana," says Gérard Krause.

Combating the coronavirus pandemic with SORMAS

Now the app also includes a module for combating the coronavirus pandemic. "Thanks to the flexible modular concept of SORMAS, we were able to activate the specific coronavirus module within a few days," says Juliane Dörrbecker, the virologist responsible for the concept. The module helps to detect individual cases of COVID-19 patients at an early stage, even in remote regions, to document clinical details and laboratory confirmations, to support all contact persons and to offer them therapy at an early stage in case they fall ill. At the same time, SORMAS generates data in real time for ongoing risk assessment at national and international level.

In Nigeria, the app already helps to quickly locate and care for infected people and their contact persons. "The first West African COVID 19 case had numerous contacts with people all over Nigeria. Without such mobile and digital control, it would be an even greater challenge to ensure complete traceability and clinical monitoring," explains epidemiologist Gérard Krause.

SORMAS also used in Germany

Now that SORMAS is well established in regions with weak infrastructure, the HZI and the Robert Koch Institute are currently working on rolling out the system for German health authorities. The aim is to give the authorities a better overview of the situation. Gérard Krause explains the advantages: "Germany uses a good digital registration system, but the contact person management is not as developed yet. Therefore, we have now created a special version of SORMAS for German health authorities. We want to offer it to all interested health authorities quickly."

SORMAS website

HZI website

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