UK adults asked to record coughs to improve COVID detection

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Researchers in the UK are asking adults who have taken a COVID-19 test in the last 72 hours to record themselves coughing, breathing and speaking to help develop new ways to detect infection.

The aim is to develop algorithms that could be used to detect COVID-19 remotely – for example before a PCR or lateral flow test – as part of the continued phase out of lockdown restrictions.

The hope is that the approach could be used to identify early whether someone needs to take a test, which could help slow down the spread of COVID-19.

The Department of Health and Social Care is running the project, which builds on earlier research in the US which found that an artificial intelligence (AI) algorithm was able to detect around 98% of cases of COVID-19 from a forced cough delivered down a cell phone.

The AI was also 100% effective in correctly diagnosing COVID-19 in people with no symptoms, but who had tested positive for the virus.

Earlier this year, a smartphone app called Hyfe launched in the UK and Ireland, promising to detect COVID-19 by running in the background and analysing natural cough patterns as people use their devices as normal.

The UK project is asking adults to record their breathing, coughing and a stock sentence using a PC or smartphone, and submit the audio files alongside the NHS barcode from their COVID-19 test to the website, running as part of the NHS Test and Trace service. People who have used an at-home test kit must have previously registered the result online.

Taking part in the study should only take five minutes, and the data will be used to train the algorithm to distinguish between someone with COVID-19 and someone who isn't infected with the virus.

Last year, the UK government awarded two contracts totalling £118,000 to Fujitsu to try to develop ways to analyse and use cough and voice data, and also gave £119,000 to Ipsos Mori for a data collection project in this area.

The audio harvesting is getting underway as positive COVID-19 tests remain high in England, with around one in 75 people having the virus, according to the latest figure from the Office for National Statistics, although the R number still seems to be less than 1.0, suggesting that cases are not escalating.

That's well above the one in 1,900 rate reported this time last year, when the population was unvaccinated and the company was opening up after a strict lockdown, according to Dr Simon Clarke, associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading.