Harvard and MIT researchers teamed up to develop a face mask capable of detecting if the wearer is infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. It only takes about 90 minutes for the mask to detect the virus, according to the newly published study on the innovation. The same tech could also potentially be leveraged to detect other types of germs and toxins.
“Freeze-dried cellular machinery” is the key to this new type of face mask, according to MIT. The detection feature is made possible by tiny sensors added to the mask that, in this case, detect the virus behind COVID-19, helping people who wear face masks for long periods of time (nurses, etc.) identify when they contract the virus.
The synthetic biology sensors were originally developed to spot two other problematic pathogens: Zika and Ebola. Beyond viruses, the researchers say their tech can also be tinkered with to instead pick up on the presence of things like dangerous toxic chemicals, which may be particularly useful in industrial and lab environments.
Rather than continuously monitoring for the virus, the face mask is designed so that the wearer can choose when to “activate” the sensors. From that point onward, the system will passively monitor for the virus and then display the results on the inside of the masks where only the wearer can see them.
Whether such a product could hit the market during the pandemic is unclear, but the underlying system may find broader uses beyond the pandemic — and even beyond things like more contained outbreaks. The researchers say the sensors could potentially be embedded into clothing and similar products, effectively functioning as wearable biosensors.