Salone Scientist Develops COVID-19 Fighter

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Evelyn Lewis, a Sierra Leonean social entrepreneur and technologist, has developed an application to aid the fight against COVID-19.

His software company, SBTS Group, developed the Health Outbreak Manager (HOM) software which consists of an app and a comprehensive suite of tools that help collect and manage data for users and COVID-19 responders.

Using live data feeds and user-reported information, officials and health organizations can monitor and manage the status of an outbreak and contain the spread with appropriate mitigation strategies.

The technology was developed between April and June 2020 and is an upgrade on the Ebola Operating System (EOS), an app developed in 2014 also by the same company and had been successfully deployed in Sierra Leone and Liberia during the 2014 – 2015 Ebola outbreak.

The Ebola App supported the work of more than 60,000 field responders who were involved in contact tracing, data gathering and management, recalls Mr. Lewis.

“The EOS was very useful to us during the Ebola time,” corroborates Steve Gaojia, who was the Sierra Leonean government’s Chief Operating Officer for the Ebola response. “We used it for gathering, storing, and analyzing data that helped us make informed decisions.”

While the Ebola app was designed primarily for use on desktops, the HOM app is mobile-friendly and more functionally versatile.

“More and more Africans are using mobile phones and it was inevitable that the app is mobile-friendly,” maintains Mr. Lewis, adding that the app not only helps track and trace users and their status, but also gives responders “the ability to run path analysis on previous movements and to monitor the spread of confirmed cases.”

It uses shortwave, Bluetooth and the Global Positioning System (also known as GPS communication) to locate individuals who have been in contact with an infected person.

Once an individual reports COVID-19 symptom to health authorities and tests positive, the Bluetooth technology enables an SBTS server to retrieve and store encrypted telephone numbers of everyone who might have encountered the patient within a certain radius and timeframe.

The mobile phone users of the identified telephone numbers then automatically receive text messages informing them they might have encountered a COVID-19-postive person and advises they go immediately for testing.

Mr. Lewis says that an “exposure network” capability developed by Apple and Google allows for telephone numbers to be identified, it does not require downloading the app. “If you use a mobile phone, that capability is already enabled in your phone. You might not know it.”

“Using live data feeds and user-reported information, officials and health organizations can monitor and manage the status of an outbreak and contain the spread with appropriate mitigation strategies,” he says.

The HOM is also equipped with information about quarantine management, as well as a call centre module, and travel health module for air travelers, among others.

Mr. Lewis is keen to stress confidentiality: “All telephone numbers are encrypted in the server and only the information reported by users of the app is analyzed by healthcare workers.”

In other words, the effectiveness of the app relies on users providing factual and prompt information. For example, health workers will rely on data fed into the app by a user in order to monitor such a user’s symptom progression.

Nevertheless, the platform enables users and healthcare workers to communicate seamlessly, something akin to telehealth.

For those who cannot afford internet costs or do not have a mobile phone, Mr. Lewis says there is “an integrated call centre module for manual tracing to cover disadvantaged or disabled populations.”

This category of people may have to make telephone calls to dedicated numbers; otherwise they will be manually identified by contact tracers who would then feed pertinent information into the HOM app.

Mr. Lewis’ involvement in tackling disease outbreaks was by happenstance.

“When Ebola hit my country, I realized that the situation was getting out of hand; hundreds were dying daily, and people did not know what to do. There was panic everywhere.

“I then arranged to meet with representatives of the government and the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in the country to learn more about the epidemic and figure out how to help.

“As a company, we decided that an app that could assist in information gathering and management would be useful because. In a disease outbreak, data is indispensable.

“So, we developed the technology and trained some 400 personnel to provide turnkey services and support thousands of field staff.”

The current pandemic has triggered an increase in demand for the HOM app. Mr. Lewis plans to deploy servers in Sierra Leone, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi and Barbados.

“We are currently discussing a partnership with the City of Washington D.C. as well as some schools in the D.C. area that have indicated interest,” he says, adding that the company was also reaching out to various governments and institutions across Africa.

“At the end of the day, we want the world to know that solutions to a global problem such as a pandemic can come from anywhere in the globe,” he enthuses. “This time, a tech solution is coming from Africa.”