Hong Kong researchers join US tech start-up to remotely monitor Covid-19 patients and quarantine cases in world’s first trial of its kind

Eric Ng

Hong Kong is set to become the world’s first testing ground for the deployment of devices and data analytics tools to remotely monitor Covid-19 virus patients and others under quarantine.

Researchers at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) and Boston-based health technology start-up Biofourmis are joining forces to start a programme in the coming days to track the health indicators of 50 confirmed patients and 150 people under quarantine orders.

The volunteer participants will wear a device with built-in sensors on their upper arm 24 hours a day, through which data including their body temperatures, respiratory rates, blood oxygen levels and heart rates will be sent to a digital platform for real-time monitoring and analysis.

“Covid-19 patients often do not show symptoms such as fever or coughing for days after being infected and becoming infectious, so traditional surveillance is not ideal, especially for those under quarantine,” said professor David Siu Chung-wah at HKU, a cardiology specialist. The platform for Covid-19 monitoring “would enable earlier diagnoses,” he added.

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The effort could grow in significance as the Hong Kong government brings home more than 3,000 of its residents stranded in central Hubei province, the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak, due to a lock down in its capital Wuhan and neighbouring cities. More than 400 have been evacuated this week and sent to quarantine centres in the city.

Biofourmis aims to engage most of the infected patients and another 500 under quarantine orders by the end of this month, chief executive Kuldeep Rajput said, adding it is in talks to deploy its devices and analytical tools in the US, South Korea and Singapore as the epidemic spreads.

Kuldeep Rajput, chief executive of Boston-based health technology firm Biofoumis. Photo: Handout

“Having the ability to remotely monitor these people and giving clinicians the right alerts and data would be immensely beneficial,” Rajput said in an interview. “For those already infected, our platform would help us better understand the disease as researchers are still learning how this strain of coronavirus affects the body.”

Rajput and Siu claimed the Covid-19 trial monitoring programme is the first of its kind globally.

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The Covid-19 monitoring program is co-led by Siu, infectious disease specialist Ivan Hung Fan-ngai and microbiologist Yuen Kwok-yung and is financed by HKU. Biofourmis and Harmony will donate monitoring devices for use on confirmed patients, and absorb half the cost for use on quarantined people, Rajput said.

The virus that causes the Covid-19 disease has infected more than 97,000 people and killed at least 3,300, mostly in mainland China. Recent cases, however, have increased from Europe to the Middle East, sparking panic and drastic reactions from governments across the globe.

The latest effort is an extension to a separate trial by Biofourmis and HKU researchers to remotely monitor up to 500 chronic heart-failure patients, to detect potentially lethal arrhythmias in time and adjust their medication through the platform. The platform will also collect many other data not currently scientifically linked to the Covid-19 disease, but upon data analysis, some may potentially show correlation, Siu noted.

Hong Kong-based Harmony Medical, which has a joint venture with Biofourmis to market the monitoring device and analytics platform in Greater China, said its “clinical-grade device” is one of the most accurate in the world for its purpose.

“The most worrisome aspect of Covid-19 is not its mortality rate, but rather its infectiousness and the resulting stress on the medical system,” said Raymond Tong chief executive Harmony, which is minority-owned by Citic Group. “It could relieve the manpower pressure at quarantine sites and hospitals, and reduce medical staff’s exposure to infection risks.”

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