Harvard-MIT Team Develops Face Mask That Lights Up When Exposed To Coronavirus

People may soon identify COVID-19 cases by simply wearing a face mask. A team of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University researchers have started work on a material that produces a fluorescent signal when it detects droplets carrying the novel coronavirus. 

The face mask contains sensors that react to droplets when a person breathes, coughs or sneezes. It promises to enable health workers to spot infections on the spot and without having to send samples to a laboratory. 

"As we open up our transit system, you could envision it being used in airports as we go through security, as we wait to get on a plane," MIT researcher Jim Collins told Business Insider. "You or I could use it on the way to and from work. Hospitals could use it for patients as they come in or wait in the waiting room as a pre-screen of who's infected."

Collins and colleagues are developing the COVID-19 detecting mask using an already existing technology. The team plans to modify sensors created in 2014 to detect the Ebola and Zika viruses on paper. 

The MIT-Harvard researchers further enhanced the technology in 2018. The sensors can now send signals when exposed to numerous viruses like SARS, measles, influenza, hepatitis C and West Nile.

"We initially did this on paper to create inexpensive paper-based diagnostics," Collins said. "We've shown it can work on plastic, quartz, as well as cloth."

Moisture from mucus or saliva activates the sensors that will then seek a genetic material that binds to a virus. Researchers place the sensors on materials, like cloth, using a machine called a lyophilizer, which separates the moisture and the genetic material.

Collins said the face mask is still in its "very early stages." However, initial tests showed the technology could effectively detect the coronavirus in a small saliva sample.

The next stage will include finalizing the design of the mask. Researchers said the sensors may either be placed inside a specific mask or attached to any over-the-counter mask.

The team currently uses a device called a fluorimeter to see the fluorescent light produced by the face mask. But they have developed another tool that changes from yellow to purple when a virus is present, making it more visible to the naked eye. 

Researchers plan to demonstrate the face mask to detect COVID-19 within the next few weeks.

Face mask Social distancing measures in many countries require residents to wear face masks or any coverings when going out to help reduce the risk of spreading the novel coronavirus. Pixabay

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