Contact Tracing: A Global Effort to Save Lives & Bring Back Economic Growth

Pat Gelsinger, VMware CEO and VMware RADIUS author

Pat Gelsinger, CEO, VMware

Municipalities, governments, businesses and academic institutions are debating their timelines, processes and plans on how to reopen. And as organizations look to get back on track, everyone wants to ensure they have the health infrastructure in place to safely allow economies to open up again—without causing additional waves of COVID-19 outbreaks. Often discussed as part of the process is contact tracing.

Contact tracing is one of the oldest public health tactics, dating back centuries. And it’s still one of the best tools we have to manage the pandemic in an ongoing way. The process involves building a “spider web” of information after identifying infected individuals in a community. Yet, contact tracing is very time and resource intensive. It is expected that the U.S. alone will need more than 100,000 workers trained in contact tracing as it starts its path to reopening.

In our modern digital world, it should serve as no surprise that technology can improve on contact tracing and best track transmission. However, technology used for these purposes is not without controversy.

For example, privacy is key. Logging how, where and when people meet is a sensitive subject in any society. Contact tracing tools must be ethically developed and used. These applications must also comply with the laws of the land. And they must be developed with a full understanding of how pathogens travel and how communities become infected.

But when used correctly, this technology can be one of the key tools in mitigating the resurgence of disease.

Innovation at the National Health Service (NHS)

When our VMware team set out to partner with the National Health Service in the United Kingdom to develop their contact tracing app, we knew two things:

  1. We had to get this out quickly.
  2. We needed the right people at the table as the app is developed, rolled out, updated and continuously improved.

The NHS needed to bring a variety of experts together to answer many important and diverse questions. For example:

  • Medical and public health professionals—epidemiologists and medical data scientists were asked: “Will the app help us save lives?”
  • Political bodies were asked: “Is this the safe and proper tool as part of a wider approach to enable us to move forward as a country?”
  • Ethicists and privacy experts were asked: “Is it the right balance of near- and long-term clinical research requirements and personal privacy?”
  • And technologists were asked: “Is it implemented well, ensuring that the highest security and data protection is performed superbly?”

While all these groups are needed at the table, the highest priority is:

Can this application be an effective tool in helping to save lives, while helping to restart society?

In a matter of weeks, VMware developed an application to support the NHS’ contact tracing and testing efforts. We worked quickly to develop a viable product that can be rapidly deployed to save the most lives possible.

The NHS contact tracing application is currently in the first phase of deployment on the Isle of Wight as part of a wider UK trace-and-test program involving online and manual contact tracing. The app is designed to alert people who may have been exposed, so they can take action to protect themselves and the people they care about. It’s also integrated with access to testing.

And working with us, the NHS open sourced the application to harness new approaches and enable careful inspection by security and privacy experts, while also being open about their approach.

A Global Effort to Save Lives & Bring Back Economic Growth

The National Health Service (NHS) in the UK deployed the first phase of its contact tracing application on the Isle of Wight.

The National Health Service (NHS) in the UK deployed the first phase of its contact tracing application on the Isle of Wight.

While tech companies will be at the heart of implementation for these applications, we need clear direction from elected governments and responsible national health systems. This will help ensure applications uphold the unique cultural, political and privacy needs of citizens. Our role as a technology company is to support these parties, who are working tirelessly to save lives and revive economic growth.

We are proud of the work we are doing with the NHS. This is amongst the most advanced contact tracing application work in the world, building on experiences in other countries and racing to rollout for every citizen of the UK. We’re also engaging with other countries to quickly leverage this capability. However, as a technologist, I know the software we use for contact tracing applications needs to be interoperable across borders and countries. Because as this contagion has proven, it doesn’t heed national boundaries.

For example, the lack of contact-tracing progress in the U.S. (and the inconsistencies of a state-by-state approach) will simply be ineffective. It will lead to fits and starts in the reopening of the economy.

This virus obeys no borders and our world has become more interconnected than at any time in human history. And that’s why national and international interoperability will be critical.

Pat Gelsinger, VMware CEO

Contact tracing applications also can play a role in businesses, academic institutions and other organizations. Think of all the entities that may require their own private contact tracing application to help protect their workers, customers and ecosystem. Like government agencies, they’re also grappling with the right way to bring their employees, students and workers back to offices, schools and other physical locations.

As leaders, we need to protect our people and their health, while avoiding potentially repeatedly closing offices and facilities. And organizations will continue facing the challenges of enabling employee productivity, while balancing safety and security. To do our part and help address these new ways of working, we plan to introduce capabilities in our digital workspace platform to help organizations safely and productively bring employees back to work.

As all organizations contemplate this technology, some vendors may feel the need to pick a side in the contact tracing app development architecture debate. However, the best technology partners can quickly adapt to any technological requirements of our customers.

Using Technology as a Force for Good

As we move into the next stage of the pandemic, we are very proud to support our customers as they provide essential services to citizens worldwide. We look forward to our continued work in helping governments and enterprises accelerate the reopening of economies in a way that saves lives. Truly, we feel that we should all—as a planet—be focused on using technology as a force for good.