Smartwatches may detect the signs of COVID-19 before you know you're sick

Small changes in heartbeat might appear up to a week before you show symptoms.


Smartwatches and fitness wearables may be able to play a valuable role in the early detection of COVID-19, according to recent studies. Researchers from Mount Sinai have found that the Apple Watch can detect small changes to a user’s heartbeat that may indicate they have the coronavirus, a full week before they feel sick, as CBS News reported. One company is even developing a custom wearable to detect COVID-19 — all of which could help stop the spread of the disease by keeping asymptomatic folks at home.

In a study titled called “Warrior Watch,” the Mount Sinai researchers followed a group of 297 health care workers between April 29 and September 29. The participants wore Apple Watches equipped with special apps that measured changes in their heart rate variability (HRV). “The watch showed significant changes in HRV metrics up to seven days before individuals had a positive nasal swab confirming COVID-19 infection,” said study author Robert P. Hirten, MD.

A similar study done by Stanford University found that participants wearing a variety of trackers from Garmin, Fitbit, Apple and others found that 81 percent of patients testing positive for coronavirus had changes in their resting heart rate up to nine and half days prior to the onset of symptoms.

One of the challenging things about COVID-19 is that many people are asymptomatic, meaning they have no symptoms but are still contagious. This makes it difficult to contain this infection by using the traditional method of identifying someone who is sick and quarantining them.

The ramifications of the studies are clear. “Developing a way to identify people who might be sick even before they know they are infected would really be a breakthrough in the management of COVID-19,” Dr. Hirten said. “This technology allows us not only to track and predict health outcomes, but also to intervene in a timely and remote manner, which is essential during a pandemic that requires people to stay apart.”

The researchers aren’t the only ones to notice that early COVID-19 symptoms that can be picked up by a smartwatch. A company called NeuTigers, born out of research from Princeton University, has developed an artificial intelligence product called CovidDeep that can help identify people with the virus in clinical situations or care homes.

The company used a clinical-grade patient monitoring wearable, the Empatica E4, to take a variety of skin, heart-rate and blood pressure readings. Feeding that information into CovidDeep, they found they could detect the virus at a rate of 90 percent — more accurately than typical temperature screenings. They eventually plan to produce their own app that could work with Fitbit, Withings, Apple, Samsung and other smartwatches.

Even without custom algorithms, a smartwatch or wearable could still be useful. The PGA Tour started using Whoop health trackers recently, and that may have helped player Nick Watney realize he was positive. “They've done studies where, if your respiratory rate goes up during the night... that's sort of a telltale sign that you might have something,” said major champ Rory McIlroy back in June. “It was actually his Whoop that told [Watney] his respiratory rate went up, and that's why he thought maybe he could have it.”