Future Tense

What the NBA’S $300 COVID-Detecting Rings Can Actually Accomplish

A silver ring made by Oura.
This ring will not rule them all (because the NBA is also taking several conventional anti-COVID measures). Oura

This article is part of Privacy in the Pandemic, a Future Tense series.

The NBA, which will tentatively restart its season on July 30, is hoping that a futuristic titanium ring will help to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. When players get to Disney World to finish out the rest of the regular season and the playoffs, they’ll have a number of gadgets at their disposal to keep the disease at bay, such as thermometers, pulse oximeters, and a wearable proximity alarm that beeps if you’re within 6 feet of another person for more than five seconds. Players and staff will live in a bubble largely isolated from the rest of the world and undergo daily tests.

They’ll also have an option to wear a $300 ring made by the Finnish company Oura that measures temperature, pulse, respiratory rate, and other physiological data that could theoretically be helpful for detecting whether someone has COVID-19, even before they start exhibiting symptoms. By plugging these variables into an algorithm, the ring will provide the players with an “illness probability score” that tells them whether they should seek a medical examination. A smartphone app linked to the ring will present the score and other information the device has collected. The inner surface of the ring has three sensors: an infrared photoplethysmography sensor for respiration and heart rate, a negative temperature coefficient for body temperature, and a 3D accelerometer for movement.

While the Oura Ring was originally designed to track sleep patterns, the company is now funding studies at West Virginia University’s Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute and the University of California San Francisco to determine whether the device could be useful for early COVID-19 detection. A Gizmodo investigation found that the pandemic has prompted a number of similar studies on other wearable technologies – including Fitbits, the Apple Watch, and the Whoop fitness tracker—which have thus far seemed promising, but far from conclusive. Early findings suggest that a higher resting heart rate, respiratory rate, and skin temperature could possibly signal the onset of an infection before the symptoms become noticeable. This is partly due to the fact that body’s immune system produces a substance called C-reactive protein during an infection, which is correlated with higher heart rates and other physiological signs. The Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute recently announced preliminary results from a study observing 600 healthcare professionals and first responders, indicating that the Oura Ring may be able to detect illness up three days before symptoms with 90 percent accuracy.

However, there’s no substantial proof that wearables like the Oura Ring are useful for early detection and plenty of reason to be skeptical. Various medical experts told CNN that there’s still very little information about the devices’ potential and that many of the studies conducted have been funded and published by the manufacturers themselves. It’s also unclear whether wearables would be able to distinguish between the presence of the coronavirus or another viral infection, like influenza. People are most likely to transmit diseases to others in the period prior to experiencing symptoms, so the devices might not be all that helpful for predicting when someone is going to be highly infectious. The accuracy of readings for measurements like skin temperature can often fluctuate depending on how tightly someone is wearing a device. And, importantly, the FDA has yet to approve any wearables for sensing COVID-19. Simply put, wearable devices are not by themselves an adequate coronavirus-prevention measure as of now.

Some players have also been voicing concerns that the Oura Ring could violate their privacy. Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma wrote of the ring on Twitter, “Look like a tracking device.” Although in this case team staff reportedly won’t have access to the health data unless the “illness probability score” is high enough to trigger intervention from a doctor, legislation in the U.S. like HIPAA generally hasn’t caught up to regulate the rapidly-advancing field of medical data. It’s often unclear who owns that medical data from a legal standpoint, and when certain people should be allowed to have access. The league has said that it will delete the data within four weeks after the end of the season.

The NBA isn’t staking the health of its league on what may potentially turn out to be a high-tech boondoggle. As Gizmodo points out, the association is also implementing a number of measures that have been proven to impede the spread of the coronavirus, like regular testing and social distancing measures. It probably doesn’t hurt, then, to try out experimental methods like Oura Rings, especially since the NBA can afford to. If these clunky rings do any harm, it’ll probably be the aesthetic kind.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.