The blood oxygen measurement feature in the newly announced Apple Watch Series 6 will provide one of the key inputs for a study seeking to determine if the device can detect early signs of acute respiratory infection such as the flu or COVID-19.

Apple and University of Washington Medicine researchers plan to launch the study later this year, tracking participants during the upcoming flu season.

Announced during Apple’s virtual event on Tuesday morning, the “first-of-its-kind study” will “allow scientists to draw a relationship between associated symptoms, signals from Apple Watch and iPhone, and test results for influenza and COVID-19,” according to a UW news release that offers more details on the plans.

In addition to blood oxygen, the study will take into account data such as heart rate, physical activity and sleep patterns. The research will also incorporate and study behavioral interventions such as reminders for Apple Watch users to wash their hands. Participants will use home testing kits that detect flu and the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19.

Dr. Jay Shendure of the UW School of Medicine and Brotman Baty Institute. (University of Washington Photo)

“The hope is that physiological signals from the Apple Watch will make it possible to identify people who are falling ill, and get them tested quickly so they can self-isolate and break the chain of transmission of the virus in the community,” says Dr. Jay Shendure, director of the Brotman Baty Institute and a UW School of Medicine professor of Genome Sciences, in the news release.

Researchers from Apple, the UW School of Medicine, the Brotman Baty Institute for Precision Medicine, and the Seattle Flu Study will conduct the research. They will provide participants with an Apple Watch for purposes of the study.

Apple says the blood oxygen feature works by shining green, red and infrared light onto the user’s wrist, measures the amount of light reflected back, and uses algorthims to calculate the color of the person’s blood, which indicates the amount of oxygen present in the blood. The new blood oxygen app takes a measurement in 15 seconds, the company said during Tuesday’s presentation.

If the study proves successful in identifying signs of respiratory disease, additional regulatory approval could be required to take the approach beyond the research phase. As spotted by some eagle-eyed observers, the fine print after the Apple presentation noted, “Blood Oxygen app measurements are not intended for medical use and are only designed for general fitness and wellness purposes.”

Researchers say they will recruit a diverse group of participants, including front-line workers and people from under-represented groups that have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The collaboration with the University of Washington is one of three research studies announced by Apple in conjunction with the unveiling of the Apple Watch Series 6 on Tuesday. The company is also partnering with UC Irvine and the Anthem health insurance company to study blood oxygen and asthma; and with Ted Rogers Centre for Heart Research and the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre at the University Health Network to study blood oxygen and heart failure.

The potential trade-off between personal privacy and public health has emerged as one of the key issues as researchers look to use technology to monitor and slow the spread of COVID-19. Data for the UW study will be collected via the Apple Research app, which researchers say will provide built-in privacy safeguards.

In a separate initiative, Apple and Google have collaborated on smartphone technology that helps states implement COVID-19 contact-tracing systems, but the technology is only available so far in a handful of states.

Independent of the research studies, Apple Watch Series 6 will be available starting Sept. 18 in the U.S. starting at $399.

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