Smart Rings to Predict COVID-19 Might Not Be Bullshit

Tara Santora

Wearable tech that seems straight out of science fiction may help people predict if they are going to get COVID-19. But will it work?

When the NBA restarts in late July at Disney World, the league will give players and staff smart rings and other tech in an attempt to curb the transmission of COVID-19. The ring, a titanium wearable called an Oura ring, is designed to monitor sleep, movement, heart activity, temperature, and breathing. Now, researchers are testing whether it can predict COVID-19 symptoms days before they appear. Oura claims the product can do so with high accuracy, but experts remain skeptical.

In an initial trial, Oura tested the ring’s ability to detect early coronavirus infection in more than 600 healthcare workers and first responders. The ring can predict symptoms up to three days before they appear with more than 90% accuracy, according to a press release from the West Virginia University Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute, which partnered with Oura in the research and makes an app that is used with the ring. However, the data from the study isn’t published or peer-reviewed. Oura also plans to expand the trial to more than 10,000 participants.

With the data available, it’s too early to tell if the Oura ring works to predict COVID-19, experts say. “There is not a lot of data on it right now. There have been some studies that I’ve seen — most of the studies are published by the device manufacturers,” Darria Long, an emergency room physician and clinical professor at the University of Tennessee School of Medicine, told CNN.

Other studies, such as one at the University of California, San Francisco, are studying whether a range of wearables can detect COVID-19. None have delivered conclusive results. “I don’t care who — if it’s Oura, or Fitbit or Apple — none of them are necessarily proven,” Long said. “We can’t use it to give a false sense of security.”

The NBA isn’t relying solely on the rings, which cost $299 and will be optional, according to CNBC. When players sign up for the season, they agree to quarantine away from their families, undergo regular testing, and follow strict social protocols. They must wear a Disney MagicBand at all times except for workouts and games, which will help with contact tracing. Players will also receive a pulse oximeter and smart thermometer, and they can opt-in for a wearable alarm that beeps when players come within six feet of another person for more than five seconds.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said he understands that the requirements are strict and players who opt not to play at Disney will not be punished. “It will entail enormous sacrifice for everyone involved,” Silver told ESPN last week. “It’s not an ideal situation trying to find our new normal in the middle of a pandemic… I can understand how some players feel it’s not for them.” 

This story is developing.

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