EU plans international coronavirus tracing network

Starting in October, a number of EU member states will launch a cross-border coronavirus tracing network. But

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Starting in October, a number of EU member states will launch a cross-border coronavirus tracing network. But France, where infection numbers are at a record high, will not join the scheme.

There is considerable cross-border traffic between Germany and France. Daily, German and French nationals cross the 450-kilometer-long (280-mile) border, as many either work or live on the other side. In everyday life, the frontier is barely noticeable.

But this cannot be said for France's coronavirus tracing efforts. In the Northern Hemisphere's spring months, France launched an app that does not utilize Google's or Apple's interface, and automatically stores a user's contacts on a state-run server. Most other EU states reject this centralized approach, deeming it inimical to users' data privacy.

Police officer controlling the French-German border in Strasbourg

Police checkpoints only exist here on the border between France and Germany in the middle of a pandemic

European coronavirus tracing  

France, which has the highest volume of cross-border traffic in the bloc, will not join the Europe-wide coronavirus tracing network, which is set to launch in October. For a week now, Germany, Denmark, Italy, Ireland, the Czech Republic and Latvia have run a pilot project to test out the new digital infrastructure to share data between each of the national coronavirus tracing apps. By all accounts, the test phase was a success. A spokesperson for the EU commission told DW all systems worked as planned.

Read more: Too few Germans using coronavirus pandemic tracing app

Until now, national COVID-19 smartphone tracing apps have notified users who have encountered other potentially infected individuals using the same app. The plan now is to use a Luxembourg-based EU server to enable pan-European tracing and notifications. Once set up, Germany's tracing app would be able to warn users who crossed paths with an infected person in another EU state, and vice versa. Users will be able to opt into this integrated EU-wide data sharing scheme in their respective apps.

Two people wearing face masks look at a smartphone

If an app user tests positive for COVID-19, it will inform others that they, too, might be infected

It is simple to link smartphones into this cross-border network, as all apps use the same interface designed by Apple and Google. This means they can easily communicate with each other. 

For the system to work, national apps must not only process national IDs but IDs from the countries participating in the network, too. A Berlin-based individual running the app will thus not only have the IDs of infected persons in Germany sent to them, but also ones from other European states. Depending on infection spikes, this could lead to considerable quantities of data being generated. Smartphones and current server infrastructure will, however, be able to handle this. Most political hurdles to allow for this pan-European network have been overcome, too.

French tracing app a dud

Lawmakers have stressed the importance of contact tracing apps, yet to little effect. Indeed, when France launched the StopCovid app, Secretary of State for the Digital Sector, Cedric O, warned his compatriots if they did not download the app "there will be more infections, more deaths and a return to the state of emergency." Despite his drastic words, StopCovid has been a flop.

Read more: COVID-19 tracing apps proving to be a tricky business around the world

Only 2.5 million people have installed the app so far. Some 700,000 the deleted the app. A mere 250 people received notifications after crossing paths with a potentially infected person. By and large, the app has been a failure in France, as Prime Minister Jean Castex recently admitted. 

A screenshot of France's coronavirus warning app, StopCovid

StopCovid is France's coronavirus warning app — but it hasn't stopped the rise in infections

Some French lawmakers have suggested making the app mandatory. Yet the odds of this happening are slim. As are the chances of the app being given a complete overhaul to meet European data privacy standards.

Tracing app more common in Germany

Germany's coronavirus app, Corona-Warn-App, in contrast, is much more widely accepted. Over 18 million people have downloaded the software. Yet it, too, is not without its faults. A survey found thattechnical glitches explain why fewer Germans now approve of the appthan when it was launched.

Statistical analyses make clear that this app is no silver bullet in the fight against COVID-19. German weekly Der Spiegel reports that less than 5% of all detected infections were traced via the app. And, so far, not all test labs are linked into the system.

A man in a white protective suit administering a COVID test through an open car window

While Luxembourg does not have a tracing app, it does offer testing for all cross-border commuters

Even so, it is too early to draw a conclusion on whether or not these apps have proven effective. It is possible they will show their true worth once coronavirus infections spike later in the year, and more users receive notifications of risky encounters.

Luxemburg has no tracing app

Residents in the Alsace regularly commuting into Germany face a dilemma. They must install both the German and French coronavirus tracing app, and then activate one or the other depending on where they are. Running both apps simultaneously is not possible.

Luxembourg-based commuters, meanwhile, must rely on the state to meticulously trace each and every chain of infection. The state simply has not developed a tracing app. And nor does it plan to.

Adapted by Benjamin Restle.
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