This year has been unlike any other in recent memory. Almost unlike any in living memory. And while that has been for a multitude of complex reasons, much of the responsibility can be uncontroversially laid on the shoulders of the COVID-19 pandemic that has spread across borders. While this has been a global catastrophe, the response to the virus has been- at its best – inspiring, as governments and both public and private organisations have pooled resources, shared information and worked together to find ways to manage the Coronavirus. We don’t need to talk about humanity at its worst through 2020, the year has been negative enough.
A vaccine is the first priority of these collective efforts, but other important work is being done to minimise its impact on those who have contracted the virus, slow its spread and also to effectively test populations to understand where COVID-19 is present in the community. Apple has recently released their new Apple Watch Series 6, which might offer something of a solution to the problem of testing for COVID-19.
Apple has been steadily broadening the health features and functionality of its Apple Watch, with the Series 4 released in 2018 being able to perform ECG measurements approved by the American FDA, as well as fall detection that can send emergency services to your location. The Apple Watch Series 5 launched in 2019 continued down the same path, with innovative new apps for tracking specific activities, including yoga, stand-up paddle boarding and surfing.
In the Apple Watch Series 6 released this year, the Cupertino-based tech firm has stepped it up once again, with watchOS 7 offering new functionality to measure blood oxygen levels, a wider range of VO2 Max levels and automatic hand-washing detection. That’s right, three pretty handy features to have in a world where a respiratory virus is yet to be brought under control.
Why are these features so important? Many of the symptoms of COVID-19 are related to low oxygen levels in the body, including coughing and shortness of breath and chest pain, but of those who show symptoms, there are around 15 per cent of positive cases that are asymptomatic. However, just because a positive case isn’t presenting with external symptoms, they can still be suffering from low blood oxygen, known as silent hypoxia, which is most commonly seen in high-altitude climbers. Thanks to the ability to measure blood oxygen levels with the Apple Watch Series 6, an otherwise asymptomatic COVID-19 case could get an otherwise invisible early warning that they are infected with the virus.
Apple is quick to point out that “Blood Oxygen app measurements are not intended for medical use and are only designed for general fitness and wellness purposes”. But the company is already working with the Seattle Flu Study at the Brotman Baty Institute for Precision Medicine and faculty from the University of Washington School of Medicine on separate studies to better understand “how signals from apps on Apple Watch, such as Heart Rate and Blood Oxygen, could serve as early signs of respiratory conditions like influenza and COVID-19”.
According to Dr Jay Shendure, the Professor of Genome Sciences, UW School of Medicine, and director of the Brotman Baty Institute for Precision Medicine: “The hope is that physiological signals from the Apple Watch will make it possible to identify people who are falling ill, and get them tested quickly so they can self-isolate and break the chain of transmission of the virus in the community.”
So while not a medical grade product that can measure the high levels of measurement accuracy required to be solely relied upon, the Apple Watch Series 6 can be an indicator that further medical testing is required. And in the current climate, where COVID-19 testing is not yet easily accessible in many parts of the world, this latest Apple Watch can offer some early insights that an asymptomatic person may need to isolate and seek further medical advice. The blood oxygen measurement function may not have been specifically developed for the pandemic that the world is grappling with in 2020, but it certainly has the potential to be a very useful tool for its wearers as scientists around the world race to create a vaccine for the deadly virus.
Apple Watch Series 6 pricing and availability:
The Apple Watch Series 6 Aluminium models start at AUD$599
The Apple Watch Series 6 Stainless Steel models start at AUD$1049
The Apple Watch Series 6 Edition (Titanium) models start at AUD$1269
The Apple Watch Series 6 Hermès models start at AUD$1899
The new Apple Watch Series 6 is currently available. For more details, visit Apple right here.