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Smart thermometer CEO on tracking coronavirus outbreak

Kinsa CEO Inder Singh joins Yahoo Finance’s Seana Smith and Akiko Fujita to discuss how his smart thermometer company is helping to track the spread of the coronavirus outbreak.

Video Transcript

SEANA SMITH: It's no secret that it has been difficult to contain the coronavirus and tracking the number of cases in the face of a shortage of, uh-- of kits here. And not only nationwide, but also worldwide.

We have one company that's looking into using internet-connected thermometers. They used it to predict the spread of the flu, and they're now saying that it could be used to track coronavirus in real time.

So I want to bring in-- endorsing a CEO of Kinsa along with our very own Akiko Fujita. Thank you both for being here. Inder, just explain to us exactly how this works, how a smart thermometer could potentially track the spread of the coronavirus at this point.

INDER SINGH: I think you painted the picture well, where we have a shortage of tests. We have a shortage of personal protective equipment. We have a shortage of beds. We need to know, in real time, where to triage, where to send the resources in so that we can respond effectively.

So we're using our nationwide network of about a million smart thermometers to know where fever spikes, an early indicator of any outbreak-- and certainly, COVID-19-- are occurring in a community. We have changed-- we've-- we've reconfigured that tool over the last several weeks to detect anomalous fever spikes, fever spikes that you wouldn't expect from normal cold and flu season.

And those are hot spots, right? Those are where we're seeing massive rises in clusters of people having fever. You know community spread is occurring, right? I cannot definitively tell you that it's COVID-19 versus some odd strain of the flu, but it's unexpected. It's not the normal stuff that you'd expect. And it's growing rapidly.

And, you know, one of the challenges is that we have-- there's all these delays in the system. There's delays in testing. There's delays in people getting symptomatic. But in those areas that have implemented aggressive social-distancing activities-- you can see it right in the data. You're seeing those fever clusters level off and start to diminish.

The Bay Area shows that very clearly. Florida is now showing that, although, for a long time, you saw a massive rise in anomalous fever, which means that, potentially, we're going to see a large number of cases come down the pipe there.

AKIKO FUJITA: So Inder, if we are seeing that lag right now, what does your real-time data tell you about how it's different from the data we're getting right now? I mean, you assume the testing that's coming down, the results are a week behind. How has the picture shifted for you?

INDER SINGH: The testing is not a week behind. The testing's weeks behind. There's so limited testing being done right now. And people are getting, you know-- they're contracting the virus. And that's a problem, right? Again, they may or may not show symptoms for up to 14 days.

But what our data is showing is that we're clearly breaking the chain of infection-- the number of people that have a fever in communities that have implemented aggressive social-distancing activities-- stay at home, shelter in place. We're clearly seeing that the number of people that have a fever is diminishing and dropping fast, meaning that we're breaking the chain of infection, meaning that we're flattening the curve.

And that's important. Have we flattened the curve enough? I don't know. I don't know the answer to that. But we're clearly breaking the chain of infection as we see it.

And we're going from this-- this dotted line that's going up, and you're getting into the red zone of anomalous, atypical fever clusters that should not be there in normal cold and flu season. And suddenly, it's starting to drop. So that's-- that's what we know today.

SEANA SMITH: Inder, what are you seeing just in terms of your data? I know that you guys are a little bit ahead of what the CDC is pointing out just in terms of hot spots or areas where the coronavirus has broken out that we are not aware of yet. What are you seeing?

INDER SINGH: Yeah. Um, you know, we saw last-- we saw about a week and a half ago that we were already seeing increases in anomalous and atypical illness in Florida and the Northeast. In fact, we got on to a call with a number of public health colleagues. At that particular time, there was not a lot of case reporting in those areas.

And they said, you know, your methods are sound. That looks all good. But you're showing me that there's a large, you know, growing level of community spread in Florida and the Northeast. We don't really know that. Lo and behold, four days later, the report started coming out.

And so that just gives you a sense for how much earlier a real-time system-- you know, this is a very simple idea. It's being able to collect and aggregate medically accurate data, you know, on a county-by-county basis across the US to know where and when symptoms are occurring, right, and how many people have those symptoms.

In public health speak, this is a syndromic early-warning system, right? And it's obvious, right? If you know where and when illness is spreading-- well, that's where the light bulb goes off and says, go investigate. There's an outbreak of some sort. Send the virologists in. Send the test kits in.

And, you know, the way that we've been, to date, trying to hotspot for COVID is, you know-- I just read an article the other day about how the government's using surveys now to hotspot. It seems like we're using 19th-century technology when we have a 21st-century real-time network of products out there that literally can tell you where and when people are getting ill and where and when community threat is occurring.

AKIKO FUJITA: So-- so Inder, having said that, what have the conversations been like for you in partnering with the CDC? And I have to wonder, you know, this is just one technology you're talking about. There's a lot of companies in the US. I mean, do you think that the federal government is doing enough to tap into the kind of innovation we're seeing in the private sector in trying to get real-time data that's just not available through normal ways of testing right now?

INDER SINGH: I do not believe the federal government is doing enough to do that. You know, we remain available and excited to partner with federal, state, and local officials to provide access to whatever kinds of analytics you need. We think that there's other products out there. There's other technologies out there that provide valuable real-time data. We have-- we have to analyze them, right?

The benefit that we've had is we've been doing this for years. We've been predicting flu the last five years accurately and much ahead of others-- on a local basis, not just on a national basis, but being able to get down to resolution at the county level. And so we have a body of literature that we've created.

But there's other products, and there's other technologies out there that need to be integrated so that we can do real-time analysis of where and when outbreaks are occurring and real-time analysis of how interventions-- or how effective interventions are, right?

When you see that, all of a sudden, there's a breakup of, you know-- there's a decrease in the number of people that have a fever in a location-- again, you know-- you know that you're starting to break the chain of infection. Did you do it early enough? We don't know. But we're definitely seeing that that's happening. And that's important in this context.

SEANA SMITH: Inder, I want to ask you real quick just in terms of demand-- I was reading about the fact that your company is now selling around 10,000 smart thermometers a day. Can you keep up with this type of demand?

INDER SINGH: We stocked out. We launched healthweather.us, which is where we're displaying all of our data. And we stocked out within the first hour. We were selling 10,000 units a day before that, which was way higher than we expected.

I'm excited to say that our manufacturing partners and others have stepped up. We're going to have, uh, nearly 100,000 units coming in every week starting in about a week and a half here. We're working our-- we're working our tails off to sort of make sure that we can actually meet demand.

And more importantly, the more sensors we have out there, the more smart thermometers that are out there, the better the data is and the more fine the resolution is. You can start hotspotting within a city if you get enough smart thermometers. Which parts of the city are having community spread? Which parts are not? So we think it's really important.

I started the company eight years ago with this vision. We've been doing this the whole time. It was not about a smart thermometer to begin with. It was about creating an early-warning system. And now it's-- it's proven to be valuable.

Now we need to roll it out and make sure there's infrastructure in the United States so that when COVID rears its head again in the fall-- and many believe that it's going to-- we need to be prepared to deploy resources to where and when they need to go.

SEANA SMITH: It certainly is proving to be valuable at this time. Inder Singh, CEO of-- well, thanks so much for joining us today.

INDER SINGH: Thank you. I appreciate it.