Since the recent reversal of Roe v. Wade — the landmark decision establishing a constitutional right to abortion — the vulnerabilities of reproductive health data and various other information stored on digital devices or shared through the Web have risen to the forefront.
Menstrual period tracking apps are an example of how technologies that collect information from users could be weaponized against abortions seekers. The apps, which help tens of millions of users in the U.S. predict when they’re ovulating, may provide evidence that leads to criminal prosecution in states with abortion bans, says Anton T. Dahbura, executive director of the Johns Hopkins University Information Security Institute. In states where abortion is outlawed, “it’s probably best to not use a period tracker,” he says.
Following the Dobbs v. Jackson ruling in late June that overturned Roe, even women who suffered a miscarriage could be suspected of having an abortion in some cases. While using these apps in anonymous mode may appear more secure, “data is notoriously difficult to perfectly anonymize,” Dahbura says. “Whether the data are stored on the user’s device or in the cloud, there are ways to connect that data to the user.”
Completely concealing one’s tracks in cyberspace poses enormous challenges. Digital forensics can take advantage of technology such as GPS apps, security cameras, license plate trackers, credit card transactions and bank records to reconstruct a person’s activities,” Dahbura says. “Abortion service providers are also in a world of risk for similar reasons.”
Practicing “good cyber hygiene” is essential. That’s particularly true in states where private citizens may be rewarded for reporting on women they suspect of having an abortion, such as Texas, which passed a so-called bounty hunter law last fall. To help guard against hacking, Dahbura suggests using strong passwords and two-factor authentication when possible while remaining on alert for phishing scams on email or texts.
Another option for safeguarding privacy is to avoid such apps entirely, but that choice will depend on an individual’s analysis of the risks and benefits, says Leah Fowler, research assistant professor at the University of Houston Law Center, Health Law & Policy Institute.
“These apps are popular because people find them helpful and convenient, so I hesitate to tell anyone to get rid of something they like without more concrete evidence of its nefarious uses,” she says. “I also hate the idea that asking anyone capable of becoming pregnant to opt out of all or part of the digital economy could ever be a viable solution. That’s an enormous policy failure. We have to do better than that.”
The potential universe of abortion-relevant data can include information from a variety of fitness and other biometric trackers, text and social media chat records, call details, purchase histories and medical insurance records.
Instead, Fowler recommends that concerned consumers read the terms of service and privacy policies of the apps they’re using. If some of the terms are unclear, she suggests emailing customer service with questions until the answers are satisfactory. It’s also wise for consumers to research products that meet their specific needs and find out whether other women have raised concerns about specific apps. Users interested in more privacy may want to switch to an app that stores data locally, meaning the data stays on your device, or does not use third-party tracking, so the app-maker is the only company with access to it, she says.
Period tracking apps can be useful for those on fertility journeys, making it easier to store information digitally than on paper charts. But users may want to factor in whether they live in a state with an anti-abortion stance and run the risk of legal issues due to a potential data breach, says Carmel Shachar, executive director of the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School.
Consumers’ risks extend beyond period tracking apps in the post-Roe v. Wade era. “Anything that creates digital breadcrumbs to your reproductive choices and conduct could raise concerns — for example, googling ‘abortion providers near me’ or texting your best friend that you are pregnant but do not want to be,” Shachar says. Women also could incriminate themselves by bringing their phones, which may record geolocation data, to the clinic with them.
The potential universe of abortion-relevant data can include information from a variety of fitness and other biometric trackers, text and social media chat records, call details, purchase histories and medical insurance records, says Rebecca Wexler, faculty co-director of the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology. “These data sources can reveal a pregnant person’s decision to seek or obtain an abortion, as well as reveal a healthcare provider’s provision of abortion services and anyone else’s provision of abortion assistance,” she says.
In some situations, people or companies could inadvertently expose themselves to risk after posting on social media with offers of places for abortion seekers to stay after traveling from states with bans. They could be liable for aiding and abetting abortion. At this point, it’s unclear whether states that ban abortion will try to prosecute residents who seek abortions in other states without bans.
Another possibility is that a woman seeking an abortion will be prosecuted based not only on her phone’s data, but also on the data that law enforcement finds on someone else’s device or a shared computer. As a result, “people in one household may find themselves at odds with each other,” says K Royal, faculty fellow at the Center for Law, Science, and Innovation at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law. “This is a very delicate situation.”
Individuals and corporate executives should research their options before leaving a digital footprint. “Guard your privacy carefully, whether you are seeking help or you are seeking to help someone,” Royal says. While she has come across recommendations from other experts who suggest carrying a second phone that is harder to link a person’s identity for certain online activities, “it’s not practical on a general basis.”
The privacy of this health data isn’t fully protected by the law because period trackers, texting services and other apps are not healthcare providers — and as a result, there’s no prohibition on sharing the information with a third party under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, says Florencia Marotta-Wurgler, a professor who specializes in online consumer contracts and data privacy at the NYU School of Law.
“So, as long as there is valid consent, then it’s fair game unless you say that it violates the reasonable expectations of consumers,” she says. “But this is pretty unchartered territory at the moment.”
As states implement laws granting anyone the power to report suspected or known pregnancies to law enforcement, anti-choice activists are purchasing reproductive health data from companies that make period apps, says Rebecca Herold, chief executive officer of Privacy & Security Brainiacs in Des Moines, Iowa, and a member of the Emerging Trends Working Group at ISACA, an association focused on information technology governance. They could also buy data on search histories and make it available in places like Texas for “bounty hunters” to find out which women have searched for information about abortions.
Some groups are creating their own apps described as providing general medical information on subjects such as pregnancy health. But they are “ultimately intended to ‘catch’ women” — to identify those who are probably pregnant and dissuade them from having an abortion, to launch harassment campaigns against them, or to report them to law enforcement, anti-choice groups and others in states where such prenatal medical care procedures are now restricted or prohibited, Herold says.
In addition to privacy concerns, the reversal of Roe v. Wade raises censorship issues. Facebook and Instagram have started to remove or flag content, particularly as it relates to providing the abortion pill, says Michael Kleinman, director of the Silicon Valley Initiative at Amnesty International USA, a global organization that promotes human rights.
Facebook and Instagram have rules that forbid private citizens from buying, selling or giving away pharmaceuticals, including the abortion pill, according to a social media post by a communications director for Meta, which owns both platforms. In the same post, though, the Meta official noted that the company’s enforcement of this rule has been “incorrect” in some cases.
“It’s terrifying to think that arbitrary decisions by these platforms can dramatically limit the ability of people to access critical reproductive rights information,” Kleinman says. However, he adds, “as it currently stands, the platforms make unilateral decisions about what reproductive rights information they allow and what information they take down.”
Responding to COVID-19 outbreaks at more than 200 mink farms, the Danish government, in November 2020, culled its entire mink population. The Danish armed forces helped farmers slaughter each of their 17 million minks, which are normally farmed for their valuable fur.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus, said officials, spread from human handlers to the small, ferret-like animals, mutated, and then spread back to several hundred humans. Although the mass extermination faced much criticism, Denmark’s prime minister defended the decision last month, stating that the step was “necessary” and that the Danish government had “a responsibility for the health of the entire world.”
Over the past two and half years, COVID-19 infections have been reported in numerous animal species around the world. In addition to the Danish minks, there is other evidence that the virus can mutate as it’s transmitted back and forth between humans and animals, which increases the risk to public health. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), COVID-19 vaccines for animals may protect the infected species and prevent the transmission of viral mutations. However, the development of such vaccines has been slow. Scientists attribute the deficiency to a lack of data.
“Several animal species have been predicted and found to be susceptible to SARS-CoV-2,” says Suresh V. Kuchipudi, interim director of the Animal Diagnostic Laboratory at the Huck Institutes of Life Sciences. But the risk remains unknown for many animals in several parts of the world, he says. “Therefore, there is an urgent need to monitor the SARS-CoV-2 exposure of high-risk animals in different parts of the world.”
In June, India introduced Ancovax, its first COVID-19 vaccine for animals. The development came a year after the nation reported that the virus had infected eight Asiatic lions, with two of them dying. While 30 COVID-19 vaccines for humans have been approved for general or emergency use across the world, Ancovax is only the third such vaccine for animals. The first, named Carnivac-Cov, was registered by Russia in March last year, followed by another vaccine four months later, developed by Zoetis, a U.S. pharmaceutical company.
Christina Lood, a Zoetis spokesperson, says the company has donated over 26,000 doses of its animal vaccine to over 200 zoos – in addition to 20 conservatories, sanctuaries and other animal organizations located in over a dozen countries, including Canada, Chile and the U.S. The vaccine, she adds, has been administered to more than 300 mammalian species so far.
“At least 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases have an animal origin, including COVID-19,” says Lood. “Now more than ever before, we can all see the important connection between animal health and human health."
The Dangers of COVID-19 Infections among Animals
Cases of the virus in animals have been reported in several countries across the world. As of March this year, 29 kinds of animals have been infected. These include pet animals like dogs, cats, ferrets and hamsters; farmed animals like minks; wild animals like the white-tailed deer, mule deer and black-tailed marmoset; and animals in zoos and sanctuaries, including hyenas, hippopotamuses and manatees. Despite the widespread infection, the U.S. Centres for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC) has noted that “we don’t yet know all of the animals that can get infected,” adding that more studies and surveillance are needed to understand how the virus is spread between humans and animals.
Leyi Wang, a veterinary virologist at the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, University of Illinois, says that captive and pet animals most often get infected by humans. It goes both ways, he says, citing a recent study in Hong Kong that found the virus spread from pet hamsters to people.
Wang’s bigger concern is the possibility that humans or domestic animals could transmit the virus back to wildlife, creating an uncontrollable reservoir of the disease, especially given the difficulty of vaccinating non-captive wild animals. Such spillbacks have happened previously with diseases such as plague, yellow-fever, and rabies.
It’s challenging and expensive to develop and implement animal vaccines, and demand has been lacking as the broader health risk for animals isn’t well known among the public. People tend to think only about their house pets.
In the past, other human respiratory viruses have proven fatal for endangered great apes like chimpanzees and gorillas. Fearing that COVID-19 could have the same effect, primatologists have been working to protect primates throughout the pandemic. Meanwhile, virus reservoirs have already been created among other animals, Wang says. “Deer of over 20 U.S. states were tested SARS-CoV-2 positive,” says Wang, pointing to a study that confirmed human-to-deer transmission as well as deer-to-deer transmission. It remains unclear how many wildlife species may be susceptible to the disease due to interaction with infected deer, says Wang.
In April, the CDC expressed concerns over new coronavirus variants mutating in wildlife, urging health authorities to monitor the spread of the contagion in animals as threats to humans. The WHO has made similar recommendations.
Challenges to Vaccine Development
Zoetis initiated development activities for its COVID-19 vaccine in February 2020 when the first known infection of a dog occurred in Hong Kong. The pharmaceutical giant completed the initial development work and studies on dogs and cats, and shared their findings at the World One Health Congress in the fall of 2020. A few months later, after a troop of eight gorillas contracted the virus at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, Zoetis donated its experimental vaccine for emergency use in the great ape population.
Zoetis has uniquely formulated its COVID-19 vaccine for animals. It uses the same antigen as human vaccines, but it includes a different type of carrier protein for inducing a strong immune response. “The unique combination of antigen and carrier ensures safety and efficacy for the species in which a vaccine is used,” says Lood.
But it’s challenging and expensive to develop and implement animal vaccines, and demand has been lacking as the broader health risk for animals isn’t well known among the public. People tend to think only about their house pets. “As it became apparent that risk of severe disease for household pets such as cats and dogs was low, demand for those vaccines decreased before they became commercially available,” says William Karesh, executive vice-president for health and policy at EcoHealth Alliance. He adds that in affected commercial mink farms, the utility of a vaccine could justify the cost in some cases.
Although scientists have made tremendous advances in making vaccines for animals, Kuchipudi thinks that the need for COVID-19 vaccines for animals “must be evaluated based on many factors, including the susceptibility of the particular animal species, health implications, and cost.”.
Not every scientist feels the need for animal vaccines. Joel Baines, a professor of virology at Cornell University’s Baker Institute for Animal Health, says that while domestic cats are the most susceptible to COVID-19, they usually suffer mild infections. Big cats in zoos are vulnerable, but they can be isolated or distanced from humans. He says that mink farms are a relatively small industry and, by ensuring that human handlers are COVID negative, such outbreaks can be curtailed.
Baines also suggests that human vaccines could probably work in animals, as they were tested in animals during early clinical trials and induced immune responses. “However, these vaccines should be used in humans as a priority and it would be unethical to use a vaccine meant for humans to vaccinate an animal if vaccine doses are at all limiting,” he says.
William Karesh, president of the World Animal Health Organization Working Group on Wildlife Diseases, says the best way to protect animals is to reduce their exposure to infected people.
In the absence of enough vaccines, Karesh says that the best way to protect animals is the same as protecting unvaccinated humans - reduce their exposure to infected people by isolating them when necessary. “People working with or spending time with wild animals should follow available guidelines, which includes testing themselves and wearing PPE to avoid accidentally infecting wildlife,” he says.
The Link between Animal and Human Health
Although there is a need for animal vaccines in response to virus outbreaks, the best approach is to try to prevent the outbreaks in the first place, explains K. Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India. He says that the incidence of zoonotic diseases has increased in the past six decades because human actions like increased deforestation, wildlife trade and animal meat consumption have opened an ecological window for disease transmission between humans and animals. Such actions chip away at the natural barriers between humans and forest-dwelling viruses, while building conveyor belts for the transmission of zoonotic diseases like COVID-19.
Many studies suggest that the source of COVID-19 was infected live animals sold at a wet market in China’s Wuhan. The market sold live dogs, rats, porcupines, badgers, hares, foxes, hedgehogs, marmots and Chinese muntjac (small deer) and, according to a study published in July, the virus was found on the market’s stalls, animal cages, carts and water drains.
This research strongly suggests that COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease, one that jumps from animals to humans due to our close relationship with them in agriculture, as companions and in the natural environment. Half of the infectious diseases that affect people come from animals, but the study of zoonotic diseases has been historically underfunded, even as they can reduce the likelihood and cost of future pandemics.
“We need to invest in vaccines,” says Reddy, “but that cannot be a substitute for an ecologically sensible approach to curtailing zoonotic diseases.”
The Friday Five covers five stories in health research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.