Researchers turn to iPhone-connected wearable to study COVID-19 symptoms

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Whoop's simple band provides deep insights into your health.
Photo: Whoop

Whoop is the latest wearable being enlisted to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. Medical researchers hope the fitness band company’s data could prove an invaluable tool for measuring symptoms caused by the coronavirus.

The Cleveland Clinic and Central Queensland University in Australia are partnering with Whoop to study changes in respiration rates. Whoop’s wearable collects health data 24/7. It could possibly be used to create an early warning system for people infected by COVID-19 but not exhibiting symptoms yet.

“We believe that a noticeable increase in respiratory rate is a measurable precursor of COVID-19 symptoms based on individual cases that we have seen in our data,” said Whoop CEO Will Ahmed. “WHOOP data may be able to help identify the coronavirus during the incubation period before someone feels sick,”

Up to 25% of people infected with COVID-19 exhibit no symptoms but still can spread the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control. And even people who do ultimately get sick from the novel coronavirus might infect others prior to exhibiting classic COVID-19 symptoms like fever and coughing.

The disease’s ability to fly under the radar complicates efforts to stop its spread. As of Monday, Johns Hopkins University reported more than 1.34 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide, with more than 74,000 deaths.

Wearables jump into COVID-19 fight

The Whoop Strap is the first wrist-worn wearable that provides accurate respiratory rate readings during sleep. (Apple Watch still can’t match that feature.) Whoop’s device also measures a user’s heart rate variability, resting heart rate and sleep to give wearers a better understanding of their fitness. All of the data is then analyzed via an iOS app that provides feedback on the user’s overall health.

Whoop originally advertised its wearable heavily as a tool to increase athletic performance. But that could change quickly, thanks to the new study. Instead of selling its devices outright, Whoop offers its product as a monthly service platform. Rates start at $30 per month with a six-month commitment.

Elsewhere, researchers are using the Oura smart ring to do something similar to the Whoop study. They distributed 2,000 Oura Rings to workers at the UCSF Medical Center and Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital last month as part of the first study to help spot COVID-19 symptoms early and help curb its spread.

Wearables continue to evolve and advance even as they grow in popularity. It’s fascinating to see how they went from simple step counters to something that can actually save your life. Apple partnered with the CDC to launch a COVID-19 screening app. However, Cupertino has not yet started its own COVID-19 study using Apple Watch. We would be surprised if the iPhone-maker isn’t working on something to help join the research efforts, though.