Face masks, the unofficial symbol of the COVID-19 pandemic, are leveling up.
A mask equipped with special electronic devices can detect SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and other airborne viruses within 10 minutes of exposurematerials researcher Yin Fang and colleagues report September 19 in Affair.
“The lightness and ease of use of this mask allows users to use it anytime, anywhere,” says Fang, of Tongji University in Shanghai. “It is expected to serve as an early warning system to prevent large outbreaks of infectious respiratory diseases.”
Airborne viruses can travel between hosts in air droplets that people inhale and exhale. People infected with a respiratory illness can expel thousands of virus-containing droplets when talking, coughing, and sneezing. Even those who have no signs of being sick can sometimes spread these viruses; people who are infected with SARS-CoV-2 can start infecting others at least two to three days before showing symptoms (Serial number: 03/13/20). Therefore, viruses often have a head start when it comes to infecting new people.
Fang and his colleagues designed a special sensor that reacts to the presence of certain viral proteins in the air and attached it to a face mask. The team then sprayed droplets containing proteins produced by the viruses that cause COVID-19, bird flu or swine flu into a chamber with the mask.
The sensor could detect only a fraction of a microliter of these proteins; a cough could contain 10 to 80 times more. Once a pathogen was detected, the mask and sensor combination sent a signal to researchers informing them of the presence of the virus. Ultimately, the researchers plan for such signals to be sent to the user’s phone or other devices. By combining this technology with more conventional tests, the team says, health care providers and public health officials could better contain future pandemics.