Xavier University, a national model for keeping college a face-to-face experience, now is recruiting students to become pioneers in the pandemic’s technology revolution with their phones and their voices.
Once a day, 125 students will use a smartphone app that will listen to each one make the sound “aah” as in “father” for six seconds in a quiet room. The app creator, Sonde Health of Boston, promises the tool can read that sample and predict with 70% certainty whether someone is at higher risk of experiencing symptoms of respiratory illness.
The app, Sonde Health, has not been federally approved as a medical device, and its makers caution not to use the app in diagnosis. But other research has shown that a person’s voice can signal changes in health. The leader of the Xavier study said if the app performs as promised in detecting a respiratory risk from COVID-19, it can turn every smartphone into an early warning system.
“The advantages of doing something like this, screening in this way, are tremendous,” said Victor Ronis-Tobin, interim director of the university’s Center for Population Health. “It’s low cost, low maintenance, self-managed, so many employers can use it. We want to find out how reliably it detects. … We’re very excited We feel we are foreshadowing the future. We want a solution for everyone.”
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The Xavier study is part of Sonde Health’s clinical trial in U.S. and Indian hospitals to validate the app’s measurements of vocal biomarkers, said David Liu, the company’s chief executive officer. The app does not detect the person who is infected but not showing signs of illness, he said, but can spot tiny changes in a voice that show a disease is underway.
“When there is a symptom of a disease, COVID or flu or COPD or asthma, it begins to impinge upon or impact the upper respiratory system,” Liu said. “These things are impacted when the symptoms show. What our technology is able to do, even in those early states, when you might have a little bit of scratchiness, we are catching it.”
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Ronis-Tobin and Liu met last year through a mutual friend, and Liu was impressed with Xavier’s commitment to keep the Evanston campus open as well as the desire to try something new. “I have to give Xavier a lot of credit,” Liu said. “They’re thorough and of course mindful of what they’re doing about safety, but they moved quickly.”
The university and its students have strictly adhered to federal guidelinesabout masks, hand washing and social distancing, and Xavier has separate housing for isolating and quarantining students.
Recruitment for the study’s rolling enlistment of 125 students in quarantine started Monday, and Ronis-Tobin said a few students are signed up. Each participant uses the app to record the six-second “aah” every day while in quarantine. Liu underscored the need to record the “aah” in a quiet room with no background noise for the best reading.
If the app finds the sample could suggest a respiratory illness, the app then asks more screening questions and, if warranted, the user gets tested for COVID-19. But all participants will be tested at the conclusion of the quarantine period.
With daily use, the app trains itself to monitor a person’s voice samples over time and can spot changes from baseline, Liu said.
The Boston developer of the app says its technology trained on more than 1 million voice samples from more than 80,000 people with respiratory conditions such as asthma, pneumonia and persistent cough. Speech pathologists, signal processing engineers and scientists processed the data to find identify objective acoustic features that indicate the presence or severity of respiratory conditions.