A number of websites are currently offering online coronavirus screening. These aren’t a full-scale test. The online sites read symptoms that you enter and then use artificial intelligence to determine how likely it is that you’re positive for the virus.
But there’s a bit of a problem. An investigation by a pair of reporters from STAT reveals that different websites give different responses to the same set of symptoms.
For example, given the symptoms of a fever, sore throat, and runny nose, a chatbot at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention responded that the reporter had “one or more symptom(s) that may be related to COVID-19.” It recommended that he contact a healthcare provider “and start home isolation immediately.” (Note that the CDC says the typical COVID-19 symptoms are a fever, a dry cough, and trouble breathing.)
The online screening tool at the Cleveland Clinic classified the reporter’s risk of the illness as medium and suggested that he complete an online questionnaire, schedule an exam via telemedicine, or call his primary care physician.
A tool created by Verily, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company, seemed to have a split personality. On one hand, it said the reporter wasn’t eligible for COVID-19 testing. But then it said, “Please note that this is not a recommendation of whether you should be tested.” This website, by the way, is the one that President Donald Trump announced in mid-March. It is being used in only a small area of Northern California.
Use caution with online screeners or testers
All in all, STAT reporters visited more than half a dozen online COVID-19 symptom checkers and came up with a mixed bag of results. Andrew Beam, an artificial intelligence researcher in the department of epidemiology at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, provided this perspective for the STAT team: “These tools generally make me sort of nervous because it’s very hard to validate how accurate they are. If you don’t really know how good the tool is, it’s hard to understand if you’re actually helping or hurting from a public health perspective.”
Meanwhile, there’s also some confusion over the validity of an at-home coronavirus testing kit that at least one company is selling online. After buying the kit, the user must collect his or her own sample and mail it to a partner lab. “While their labs may be in compliance with the FDA’s new policies,” reports Fierce Biotech, “people in their homes—where collecting an uncontaminated specimen for a sensitive molecular sequencing test can be a delicate, complex matter—may not be.” The Food and Drug Administration says it hasn’t authorized any at-home testing and that a test could be ineffective if the person isn’t trained to administer it. At least one company that processes at-home COVID-19 tests says it’s ending its test processing, due to the recent FDA guidance.
Beware of another kind of virus
As I was researching this column and searching Google for COVID-19 tests, I received an alert from my security software warning that a “malicious URL was blocked.” It apparently had to do with a security certificate that was issued to a different website than the one that appeared in my search results. It may be nothing, but take this as a word to the wise. A crisis like the one we’re in brings out all kinds of scammers. Be careful not to catch any of their bugs.
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