China launches coronavirus tracking app as death toll surpasses 1,000

The app alerts you if you have been in close contact with a sick person.

The Chinese government launched an app to help combat the spread of the novel coronavirus, as the death toll from CoViD-19 in the nation spiked to more than 1,000 and the number of confirmed cases has exceeded 40,000.

The smartphone app, dubbed the "close contact detecter," aims to let people know whether they are at risk of catching the disease based on if they have been in close proximity with someone who has it.

While it has courted some privacy concerns, some experts say those are currently outweighed by public health benefits amid what the World Health Organization has dubbed a global health emergency.

The app was designed by three Chinese government agencies -- the General Office of the State Council, the National Health Commission and the China Electronics Technology Group Corporations -- and unveiled Monday in a report from Xinhua, the state-run news agency, on the National Health Commission's website.

"These new apps are helpful, but we’re all waiting to see if it can do much to reduce the spread," Dr. Irwin Redlener, the director of Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness, told ABC News Tuesday.

"Will it stop the epidemic? No, but it will help individuals figure out if they are at risk," he added.

"The situation is already really kind of out of control," Redlener, who is also a professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, said. "We’re applying these tools which will help, but there is so many unknowns about the behavior of this coronavirus that the amount of help it is going to do in controlling spread is going to be limited."

  The app alerts you if you have come in close contact to people with confirmed cases, suspected cases or mild cases, including coworkers, people who share a classroom, people who live together, or passengers and crew members who may have been on the same flight or train as an ill person.

On a flight, passengers in the same row or within a three-row radius of a sick person, as well as flight attendants who provided service in the area, are considered "close contact." The rest of the passengers will be classified as having "general contact," according to Xinhua.

Meanwhile, in an enclosed and air-conditioned train car, all passengers and crew members in the car would be classified as being in close contact.

If you have been alerted that you were in close contact with someone who is sick, you are advised by the app to stay at home or get in touch with local health officials.

Although China's officials did not specify how the app detects those infected with coronavirus, the app has received support from the Ministry of Transport, China Railway and the Civil Aviation Administration of China "to ensure accurate, reliable and authoritative data," Xinhua reported.

It has raised some privacy concerns among critics. In order to register, users must enter their name and government ID number.

Redlener said that even without these apps and new technologies, if you came down with a verified case then public health officials would still need to track where you have been.

"There is an inherent conflict between the absolutely necessary public health techniques versus individual privacy," Redlener said.

"In this case the public good and the public health has to outweigh the privacy concerns, otherwise we have no shot of doing anything about this," he added. "Most people would rather know that they've been in contact with someone who has coronavirus than to have that information kept from you."