Move over inaccurate RATs. Get out of my nose and throat PCR swab tests. There’s a new method of COVID-19 detection and it’s wearable.
A research team from Tongji University in China, has created a face mask that can detect COVID-19 (as well as other common respiratory viruses such as colds and influenza) and send an alert to your smartphone.
The mask is highly sensitive, with the inbuilt sensor able to detect the virus in the air after only ten minute’s exposure at extremely low concentrations – far less than produced by sneezing, coughing or talking.
“Previous research has shown face mask wearing can reduce the risk of spreading and contracting the disease. So, we wanted to create a mask that can detect the presence of virus in the air and alert the wearer,” says Yin Fang, an author of the study and a material scientist at Shanghai Tongji University.
The sensor on the mask has tiny synthetic molecules – called ‘aptamers’ – which are able to be tweaked to detect proteins unique to specific pathogens, such as SARS-Cov-2, H5N1 (colloquially known as ‘bird flu’) and H1N1 (‘swine flu’). Once the aptamer detects the virus, the sensor amplifies the signal via a specialised component known as an ion-gate transistor (which is highly sensitive and able to detect very low voltage signals) and sends an alert to the user’s phone.
“Our mask would work really well in spaces with poor ventilation, such as elevators or enclosed rooms, where the risk of getting infected is high,” Fang says. The device is also highly customisable and can be swiftly modified to detect new and emerging threats.
This is not the first time ‘smart masks’ have been created to detect COVID-19, but what sets these devices apart is their sensitivity and ‘tunability’ to different viruses.
The team is working on reducing the detection time and increasing the sensitivity of their devices. In the future, they hope the technology could be expanded to further applications and wearables for other conditions such as cancers and heart diseases.
“Currently, doctors have been relying heavily on their experiences in diagnosing and treating diseases. But with richer data collected by wearable devices, disease diagnosis and treatment can become more precise,” Fang says.
Clare Kenyon is a science journalist for Cosmos. An ex-high school teacher, she is currently wrangling the death throes of her PhD in astrophysics, has a Masters in astronomy and another in education. Clare also has diplomas in music and criminology and a graduate certificate of leadership and learning.
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