Challenges of the Omikron wave: What else does the Corona warning app bring?

Status: 11.01.2022 8:17 p.m.

With the rapidly increasing number of new infections, the number of warning messages in the Corona warning app is also increasing. But what other uses does the app have? Experts believe that it should be adapted to Omikron.

By Christian Kretschmer, SWR

When Paul Lukowicz opened the Corona warning app on his smartphone a few days ago, he saw what one would not want to see there: a red warning message – “increased risk”. Lukowicz is a professor at the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence in Kaiserslautern. On the day on which, according to the app, he had a risk contact, he was on a skiing holiday in Austria.

Christian Kretschmer

“Unfortunately, I don’t know now: Does the app sound the alarm because I was in the restaurant where an infected person was sitting? Or was I just standing in line for too long at the ski lift wearing a mask and there was an infected person behind me? ” This is a crucial difference for the risk assessment, says Lukowicz. But the app doesn’t tell you the exact time of a risk encounter. “Data protection is certainly important, but the app has overdone it,” says the expert. “Without context, for example at the time, the benefit is very limited. In the end, people can assess the risk better than technology alone.”

Researcher Paul Lukowicz: “Data protection is certainly important, but the app has overdone it.”

Image: Paul Lukowicz

More than 40 million downloads

The Corona warning app has now been downloaded more than 40 million times. If the alert is red, it is recommended that you go home, isolate yourself if possible, look out for symptoms, and get tested. The number of these risk reports by the users of the app has recently increased significantly in view of the contagious Omikron variant – and should continue to increase soon.

But how useful is that even if important context information is missing? Does the app have to be comprehensively adapted?

“Sensitivity of the app should be increased”

“Especially in the current phase of the Omikron wave, the app still brings something,” says Timo Ulrichs, epidemiologist at the Akkon University of Applied Sciences in Berlin. Because people are more mobile again after the holidays, restaurants are still open. The app can make unnoticed risk contacts visible here.

But: “If the number of infections increases rapidly, there will most likely be significant restrictions in public life again. Then the use of the app will also be less,” says Ulrichs. He advocates that the app should be adapted to the Omikron variant. Because the app sounds the alarm if a risk encounter lasts at least nine minutes and the distance is less than two meters. The last update on this calculation basis is said to be from April last year – long before the Omikron variant was discovered. “Here you would have to increase the sensitivity of the app because the Omikron variant is more contagious,” says epidemiologist Ulrichs.

Epidemiologist Timo Ulrichs is in favor of adapting the warning app to the challenges of the Omikron wave.

Image: Timo Ulrichs

RKI does not see prerequisites

The Robert Koch Institute, publisher of the Corona warning app, has so far seen it differently. Upon request, it reports: “We continuously monitor the infection process and regularly check possible changes to the Corona warning app against this background. Adjusting the tracing function of the CWA for Omikron through narrower thresholds for distance or duration inevitably leads to a significant increase of warnings. This has to be weighed against the specific risk of infection from the Omikron variant. According to current scientific knowledge, the prerequisites for this adaptation are not given today. “

The communication of the time of a risk encounter is not possible due to requirements from Google and Apple as well as for data protection reasons, “otherwise it would be possible in many cases to infer the identity of the contact.”

Personalized alerts based on vaccination status?

For the member of the Bundestag and network activist Anke Domscheit-Berg, the Corona warning app is currently “the only means that still enables timely contact tracking”. Many health authorities that are actually responsible for this task are no longer complying with this. “The app is the fastest way to warn people. And a red tile also has a psychological effect. It makes it clear that it is important to withdraw – and not visit grandma.”

Domscheit-Berg is also in favor of further developing the app. For example, the vaccination certificate stored in the app can be taken into account. This would allow personalized warnings to be displayed depending on the vaccination status. After all, such a distinction already exists in the quarantine rules. An unvaccinated person would then receive a different warning message in the app than a vaccinated person, i.e. be warned even more critically. “That would make sense,” says Domscheit-Berg.

Computer science professor Lukowicz sees it similarly. His idea: a personal risk assessment that the user receives in the app at the end of each day.

Problem with vaccination certificate for convalescents

However, it is currently unlikely that such a feature will appear. The new version of the Corona warning app has a different function extension: With it, users should be able to send their vaccination certificate directly if, for example, they buy a ticket online and the organizer asks for proof.

The Federal Ministry of Health also announced that an error that affects those who have recovered should be corrected soon. So far, those who have recovered have not been able to store their second vaccination in the app as a booster vaccination – the app also required three out of three vaccinations here. In future there will be a separate certificate for this. This should also apply to people who are boosted and have previously been vaccinated with a vaccine that only requires one dose. According to the Federal Ministry of Health, the technical changeover for the certificate should take place by February 1st.

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