Spector considers this current version of the Zoe app a giant citizen science project. Users can enroll in different studies, which involve answering questions through the app. Current studies include investigations of the gut microbiome, early signs of dementia, and the role of immune health in heart disease. Before the pandemic, recruiting hundreds of thousands of people for a study would be nearly impossible, but the Zoe app is now a huge potential resource for further research. “I would love to see what happens when 100,000 people skip breakfast for two weeks,” Spector says.
People who have reported symptoms of Covid are not automatically included in these new studies. Some 800,000 people have agreed to track their health beyond Covid via the Zoe app, while a smaller proportion of people have signed up for specific trials. But it’s hard to imagine those huge sign-up numbers without the app playing such a big role during the pandemic.
“These emergencies become catalysts and create a very unique environment,” says Angeliki Kerasidou, professor of ethics at Oxford University. “We need to think a little more carefully about how we use these situations and what we do with them.”
There is also a question about the line between providing care and conducting research, says Kerasidou. At the height of the pandemic, the National Health Services in Wales and Scotland asked people to track their symptoms through the Zoe app. Tracking Covid symptoms this way might have seemed like the socially responsible thing to do, but now that the app is focusing on broader health tracking and clinical studies, should people feel the same? obligation to participate?
The German application Luca undergoes an even more spectacular about-face. As of spring 2021, 13 German states had signed contact tracing contracts with the app, worth a total of 21.3 million euros ($22.4 million). Back then, people used the app to check in to restaurants or other businesses by scanning a QR code. If they come across someone who soon after tested positive for the virus, the app would tell them to self-isolate.
But as vaccination rates in Germany improved, state contracts began to evaporate. In response, Luca CEO Patrick Hennig sought a new business model. In February 2022, Luca revealed that it would transform into a payment app, with its new payment feature launching in early June.
It was a bold business move in notoriously cash-friendly Germany. Around 46% of Germans still prefer to use cash, according to a 2021 study by British polling firm YouGov, compared to just over 20% in the UK. But Hennig hopes to change ingrained habits by leveraging the Luca brand – and the registered user base of 40 million people – that the company has built throughout the pandemic.
The idea is that people can use Luca as an alternative to card terminals. At the end of a meal, restaurant customers scan a QR code which shows them their bill and allows them to pay through the Luca app, using Apple Pay or their card details. Hennig is trying to incentivize restaurants to use his system by reducing the 1-3% fee they are typically charged for using a card terminal. Currently, Luca is free for restaurants and stores, but it will drop to a 0.5% fee at the end of the year, Hennig said. Over 1,000 restaurants and stores have signed up so far.