Researchers developing face mask that glows if coronavirus is detected, report says

Researchers at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are working to develop a face mask that lights up when it comes in contact with the novel coronavirus.

For the past six years, the team of bioengineers have been developing sensors that light up to signal the presence of viruses, including ones that cause Zika and Ebola, according to Business Insider. The team is now hoping to tailor the technology to identify coronavirus cases by embedding the sensors inside face masks which would then produce a fluorescent signal when a person with COVID-19 breathes, coughs or sneezes, the website reported.

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"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 bioengineer 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."

If successful, Collins said the technology could also help address flaws associated with other basic screening methods like temperature checks, as many who become infected with the novel coronavirus don’t immediately show symptoms but can still transmit the virus to others.

Collins told the website that the coronavirus project is still in the “very early stages,” but the results have been promising. Over the past few weeks, fellow researchers have been testing the sensors’ ability to detect COVID-19 in a small saliva sample.

The team is also debating on whether to embed sensors on the inside of a face mask or create technology that could be attached to any mask, Business Insider reported.

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

Researchers said the sensors need two things for the glow to be activated, according to the report: Moisture, which our bodies give off naturally through respiratory particles, such as mucus or saliva, and they need to detect a virus’ genetic sequence.

The technology is designed to give off a fluorescent signal within one to three hours.

Collins told the website that the lab’s “aspirational goal” is to begin manufacturing masks for public distribution by the end of summer 2020.

"Right now we're time-constrained and talent-constrained in that we've got a relatively small team," he said. "We're limited in how many we can have in the lab working, and they're all working as hard as they can."

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The same team of researchers began developing sensors that could detect the Ebola virus when it was freeze-dried onto a piece of paper in 2014, according to Business Insider. They later reworked the technology to address the growing threat of the Zika virus in 2016.

The team’s sensors have also proven to detect viruses that cause SARS, measles, influenza, hepatitis C, West Nile and other diseases.

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This story was reported from Cincinnati.