Researchers are developing a face mask that detects the coronavirus

News > World

   Cherish Kyeyune | Posted on May 15, 2020

Researchers at Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States are working together to develop a mask that lights up when the coronavirus is detected.     

Guidelines set in place around the world require wearing a mask to help prevent the spread of the virus. What if masks could help detect the virus? The researchers at Harvard and MIT are developing a diagnostic face mask that could detect COVID-19 in individuals who have symptoms of the virus.   

According to a news release published on Harvard’s website, in October of 2014, a multi-institutional team of researchers developed a method that can embed diagnostic gene networks on portable discs of ordinary paper. Those gene networks could be used as programmable diagnostics and sensors.   

During the Ebola outbreak at that time, the team of researchers demonstrated their development by using it to test for Ebola. They used a sensor that could recognise specific genetic characteristics of not only Ebola but other viruses such as Zika, SARS, measles, influenza, hepatitis C, and West Nile fever.   

Dr. James Collins, a synthetic biologist at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, led this research. In 2016, the team further developed the work done in 2014 to create a low-cost, paper-based diagnostic system for the Zika virus. Dr. Collins and a team of researchers are now working on a wearable diagnostic in the form of a face mask that could detect COVID-19.  

The technology being used in this solution is based on a collection of wearable synthetic biology sensors developed by Collins and his team. The highly sensitive molecular sensors are being coupled with artificial biology networks. If COVID-19 is detected, this arrangement could immediately enable the production of a visible or florescent colour signal.   

The set-up with the sensors and the biological network could be freeze-dried and embedded into the material of face masks. When the masks are exposed to small droplets expelled by normal breathing, sneezing, and coughing, the reaction will produce a positive or negative signal within 1 to 3 hours due to the sensors becoming rehydrated.  

According to Business Insider, since the fluorescent signal produced is not visible to the naked eye, in the lab Collins and his team are using a fluorimeter to measure the fluorescent signal.   

Also, Business Insider reported that even though the project is still in its early stages, the results have been very promising so far. Collins and his team have been checking the sensors’ ability to detect the virus in a small saliva sample over the last few weeks. The team hopes to demonstrate how the idea works over the next few weeks.   

“Once we’re in that stage, then it would be a matter [of] setting up trials with individuals expected to be infected to see if it would work in a real-world setting,” Collins told Business Insider.  

Also, Collins and his team are experimenting with putting the sensors inside masks and developing a module that can be attached to over-the-counter masks.    

According to Business Insider, the team wants to begin the production of masks for public distribution by the end of the summer, offering a cheaper and quicker way to diagnose the virus. 


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Cherish Kyeyune
Junior Writer

Cherish is a 19-year old writer based in Gros Islet, St. Lucia. In 2018 she graduated from Castries Comprehensive Secondary School, then took a break from school and rekindled her love for writing and art. During this time, she volunteered at a veterinary lab and interned at The Voice Publishing Co., where she wrote and proofread articles for the weekly newspaper and website. As a life-long resident of the Caribbean, she loves the beach and the ocean, and one day hopes to sail the world. She thinks STEM is intriguing because it teaches us how entities around the world work.

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