Smartwatches Could Monitor Coronavirus Vaccine Safety

CDC will be just a text away

Key Takeaways

  • If a coronavirus vaccine is rolled out in the US, the CDC plans to use smartwatches to track safety. 
  • V-SAFE will use phone numbers from the registration process to send text messages and web surveys from CDC to check in with vaccine recipients for health problems.
  • Some experts raised concerns about the security of the data generated by the smartwatches used in the surveillance program.
Young person wearing a mask using a smartwatch in a shopping mall.
Images By Tang Ming Tung / Getty Images

The CDC plans to use smartwatches to help monitor the safety of coronavirus vaccines if they are rolled out in the U.S. 

Results of two vaccine candidates were announced recently and both are expected to be more than 90% effective. However, health officials will continue to have to monitor safety if hundreds of millions of people are vaccinated in the coming months. The smartwatches could help ensure there are no adverse side effects, experts say. 

"This continued monitoring can pick up on adverse events that may not have been seen in clinical trials," the CDC writes on its website. "If an unexpected adverse event is seen, experts quickly study it further to assess whether it is a true safety concern. Experts then decide whether changes are needed in U.S. vaccine recommendations. This monitoring is critical to help ensure that the benefits continue to outweigh the risks for people who receive vaccines."

Health Checker Comes to Your Watch

Among its various vaccine safety monitoring systems, the CDC plans to use a new, smartphone-based, health checker named V-SAFE. Those who get vaccinated will be signed up for the program and V-SAFE will use phone numbers from the registration process to send text messages and web surveys from the CDC to check in with vaccine recipients for health problems.

For the first week after vaccination, vaccine recipients will get daily text messages and emails and weekly thereafter for the following six weeks. The system also will provide telephone follow up to anyone who reports medically significant adverse events.

"If people are using commercially available devices to track medical information, HIPAA may not apply,"

Some experts raised concerns about the security of the data generated by the smartwatches used in the surveillance program. The Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) used by the CDC seems to lack some safeguards that are found in the COVID-19 Contact Tracing solutions, Jason Cottrell, CEO of software company Myplanet, said in an email interview.

"While it would add time to the VAERS program, at a time when people need a vaccine to combat COVID-19, it would seem prudent for the CDC to take measures to protect people's privacy by following the existing privacy safeguards already employed by the Contract Tracing solutions from Google and Apple, and the existing Wireless Emergency Alerts standard used around the world," Cottrell added. 

All Privacy Rules May Not Apply

Medical data in a patient setting is usually regulated under HIPAA's strict data privacy rules, pointed out privacy consultant Debbie Reynolds in an email interview. "However, if people are using commercially available devices to track medical information, HIPAA may not apply," she added. "Consumer privacy laws may apply, which have a lower level of data protection than HIPAA."

But some experts say that privacy is unlikely to be an issue with the vaccine monitoring program. "If the patients receiving the vaccine are fully consented and informed about who is collecting the data and how it is being shared" then privacy won’t be compromised, Andrew Boyd, an associate professor of Biomedical and Health Information Sciences at the University of Illinois, Chicago, said in an email interview. 

A person wearing a mask, looking at a smartphone outdoors on a boardwalk at night.
 Jovan Doncic / Getty Images

However, he added, "If the only way to get the vaccine is to wear a device, then one could be concerned for coercion, especially if the data is being shared with other for-profit entities."

Users are turning to smart watches for many types of health monitoring. The Apple Watch 6, for example, can monitor everything from blood oxygen levels to potentially dangerous heart anomalies. Wearables are also part of medical studies. "At Clinicaltrials.gov over 550 clinical trials have used Fitbit to monitor patients," Boyd said. 

One obstacle to the monitoring program might be getting people to participate. "The reality is that a fair number of consumers stop wearing the devices after a number of months," Boyd said. "So, without long-term buy-in from patients and consumers it is hard to predict the future."

The excitement has been growing in recent weeks about possible vaccines for coronavirus. If a vaccine is released, smartwatches could help monitor safety and reassure the public that it’s working.