Imagine wearing a facial mask that not only protects you from the coronavirus, but also lets you know when you’ve been in touch with the COVID-19 contagion. It may not be something that’s that far away.
Researchers at Harvard and MIT are developing a facial mask that lets people know when its been in contact with the coronavirus by glowing. The idea of the mask in development is a fairly simple one: whenever the material used in the mask is in contact with vapor that contains the COVID-19 contagion, the user is alerted with a fluorescent signal.
Dr. Jim Collins is a professor of bioengineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and initially came up with the idea of a “diagnostic facemask” during the Ebola outbreak in 2014. Working with researchers at nearby Harvard, they published research in 2016 to deal with the Zika virus. Now, in 2020, their work seems remarkably prescient in the face of the coronavirus pandemic that has medical and public health experts reeling.
In a Q&A with the Allen Institute, Collins explained specifically how, when people speak, a good amount of vapor is emitted. “If you’re infected, you also give off viral particles, not only in coughing and sneezing but also when speaking, in small droplets and in vapor,” Collins explained. “The notion is if you’re wearing a mask, that within 2 to 3 hours you could have a readout as to whether you’re infected. For example, by having the mask design give off a fluorescence output in the case of a positive test.”
When asked how it would work, Collins said the protective mask could produce a fluorescence signor or one that “could be detected by a simple, hand-held device.” The MIT professor added, “If the mask does produce a fluorescence signal, the protocol would likely be [to] contact your physician, as well as to immediately begin to self-isolate.”
Collins also revealed that his team is also experimenting with design: “Right now, the lab is debating whether to embed sensors on the inside of a mask or develop a module that can be attached to any over-the-counter mask.” While Collins notes that his lab’s current project is in the “very early stages,” but the results have been promising.
In an interview with Business Insider, Collins noted the practical application of his mask. “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,” Collins said. “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.”