Spector sees this current version of the Zoe app as a giant citizen science project. Users can sign up for various surveys, where questions are answered through the app. Current studies include research into the gut microbiome, early signs of dementia, and the role of immune system health in heart disease. Before the pandemic, it would have been nearly impossible to recruit hundreds of thousands of people for a study, but the Zoe app is now a huge potential tool for new research. “I’d like to see what happens if 100,000 people skip breakfast for two weeks,” Spector says.
People who reported Covid symptoms are not automatically included in these new studies. About 800,000 people have agreed to track their health outside of Covid through the Zoe app, while a smaller proportion of people have signed up for specific studies. But it’s hard to imagine these huge sign-up numbers without the app having played such a prominent role during the pandemic.
“These emergencies become catalysts and create a very unique environment,” said Angeliki Kerasidou, a professor of ethics at the University of Oxford. “Something we need to think a little more carefully about is how we use these situations and what we do with them.”
There is also a question about the boundary between providing care and doing research, says Kerasidou. At the height of the pandemic, the National Health Services of Wales and Scotland instructed people to track their symptoms via the Zoe app. Tracking Covid symptoms in that way may have seemed socially responsible, but now that the app’s focus is on broader health logging and clinical trials, should people feel the same obligation to participate?
The German app Luca is undergoing an even more dramatic turnaround. By the spring of 2021, 13 German states had signed contact tracing contracts with the app, worth a total of €21.3 million ($22.4 million). Back then, people used the app to check in at restaurants or other businesses by scanning a QR code. If they crossed paths with someone who tested positive for the virus shortly after, the app would tell them to isolate themselves.
But as vaccination rates in Germany improved, state contracts began to evaporate. In response, Luca’s CEO, Patrick Hennig, started looking for a new business model. In February 2022, Luca revealed that it would turn into a payment app, with the new payment feature starting in June.
This was a bold business decision in notoriously money-friendly Germany. About 46 percent of Germans still prefer cash, according to a 2021 survey by UK polling agency YouGov, compared to just over 20 percent in the UK. But Hennig hopes to change entrenched habits by leveraging the Luca brand — and the user base of 40 million registered people — the company has built during the pandemic.
The idea is that people can use Luca as an alternative to card terminals. At the end of a meal, restaurant visitors scan a QR code that shows their bill and allows them to pay via the Luca app, with Apple Pay or their card details. Hennig is trying to get restaurants to use his system by undercutting the 1 to 3 percent fee they usually charge for using a card terminal. At the moment Luca is free to restaurants and shops, but that will shift to a 0.5 percent fee by the end of the year, Hennig says. More than 1,000 restaurants and shops have signed up so far.