An early warning system is needed to avoid pandemics: Kinsa’s Inder Singh – ETtech

An early warning system is needed to avoid pandemics: Kinsa's Inder Singh - ETtech

An early warning system is needed to avoid pandemics: Kinsa's Inder Singh - ETtech
Inder Singh, founder & CEO of eight-year-old San Francisco-based health technology firm Kinsa, has had a few busy months with his company selling more than 10,000 internet-connected thermometers every week in the US.

Recently, in its effort to prioritise its public health response, the company signed partnerships to distribute 500,000 thermometers in the states of California, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, and Oregon. These thermometers use data fed by users into an app, helping spot the spread of the coronavirus while identifying clusters where a possible outbreak is likely.

Singh, an Indian American, who has spent most of his career in public health across the world including in India, spoke to ET’s Samidha Sharma in an exclusive phone interview highlighting that an effective early warning system, widespread testing, treatment and isolation are ways to battle the Covid-19 spread into communities. Excerpts from an extended chat.

How does Kinsa help in identifying Covid-19-hit areas and mapping the spread?

We have data from about a million households across the US that use our products—smart thermometers and medical guidance apps—and we’re specifically plotting and mapping unusual fever levels. Clusters of people who have fever that go beyond a simple flu, that is what is an anomalous outbreak. At this point, while I can’t definitely tell you that it is Covid-19, I can confidently tell you it’s Covid-19 because of all the analysis we have done.

As far as we can tell this is the only effective early warning system for Covid-19 spread. We have different people with symptoms that co-relate with Covid-19. And these symptoms also co-relate with flu. We can look at our map and plot this data back five years, there’s definitely a time when we’ve seen anomalous trends. They are small blips not big blips. Here, it is a black swan, we’re seeing massive anomalous illness all over the country.

An early warning system is needed to avoid pandemics: Kinsa's Inder Singh - ETtech
Image Source: Kinsa

What has been the trend when social distancing is implemented in areas as evidenced by your fever maps?

Another thing that you can tell from ( run by Kinsa) is you can actually monitor the effectiveness of interventions. So, when authorities implement aggressive social distancing, stay-at-home or shelter-in-place norms, within seven days we can see fever levels curving off, levelling off, dropping dramatically.

That’s the way we use our data. To be clear, we’ve been doing prediction and tracking of flu like illness for eight years. I started the company because I felt we needed a real-time system to detect outbreaks and predict them if you have to stop an outbreak from spreading and becoming an epidemic or pandemic. The sad fact is that we’ve never had a real-time early warning system and we’ve never had a real-time protection system. For example, for the last five years we’ve been able to predict the flu on a local basis, three or four weeks in advance.

But why a thermometer?

The thermometer is a means to an end. Two and a half months ago, in collaboration with well-known scientists we actually showed that we could predict flu spreads before Covid-19 in the US. We could also create this spread on a city-by-city or hyperlocal basis. We can predict the entire flu incidents per city basis, 12 to 24 weeks in advance.

You need an early warning system. There is no early warning system that exists in the world, we’ve been trying to build for many years, and now’s our time to actually help people realize that this is fundamental infrastructure for the world.

Are you looking at doing something in India?

Absolutely. I don’t know how fast we can move on it because right now our apps are in English, and obviously we want them to be in multiple languages. But absolutely India is one of the hotbeds of infectious diseases.

An early warning system is needed to avoid pandemics: Kinsa's Inder Singh - ETtech
What do you think of the privacy concerns around contact tracing platforms and even what you do?

This is where the public needs to understand that you can have both– you can have ultimate privacy of the individual. What we’re sharing is presented by people on a county-by-county basis, you cannot identify a person with that kind of data. That is a false dichotomy. You do not sacrifice privacy in order to do outbreak detection. Today, technology has evolved, we can do both now. So long as we make sure that we watch people do it the right way and regulate it.

How important is the data collection part to the whole process?

The thinking was that if we have these insights to how the flu and other illness were spreading, someone’s going to buy that because they’ll have a system that’ll be able to predict it. Brands would be able to buy it so that they can optimise their inventory levels. The idea was to give people a connected product and then mine the data to know what’s going on at a community level. You are giving people the data they need to know for how to respond. We just started distributing at scale in one major state in the US.

(Illustrations by Rahul Awasthi)