Scientists are Developing a Face Mask That Can Sense Airborne Viruses

The face mask has the potential to send airborne virus alerts to the wearer's phone through a network connection.

click to enlarge Yin 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.
Yin 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.

Face masks — the unofficial symbol of the COVID-19 pandemic — are leveling up. A mask outfitted with special electronics can detect SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and other airborne viruses within 10 minutes of exposure, materials researcher Yin Fang and colleagues report Sept. 19 in Matter.

“The lightness and wearability of this face mask allows users to wear it anytime, anywhere,” says Fang, of Tongji University in Shanghai.

“It’s expected to serve as an early warning system to prevent large outbreaks of respiratory infectious diseases.”

Airborne viruses can hitch a ride between hosts in the air droplets that people breathe in and out. People infected with a respiratory illness can expel thousands of virus-containing droplets by talking, coughing and sneezing. Even those with no signs of being sick can sometimes pass on these viruses; people who are infected with SARS-CoV-2 can start infecting others at least two to three days before showing symptoms (SN: 3/13/20). So 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 spritzed 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 just a fraction of a microliter of these proteins — a cough might contain 10 to 80 times as much. Once a pathogen was detected, the sensor-mask combo sent a signal to the researchers informing them of the virus’s presence. Ultimately, the researchers plan for such signals to be sent to a wearer’s phone or other devices. By combining this technology with more conventional testing, the team says, health care providers and public health officials might be able to better contain future pandemics.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.

This story was originally published by Science News, a nonprofit independent news organization.


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