Years before the coronavirus emerged, a small team of scientists from MIT and Harvard were already focused on pandemics. Their journey began in 2014, when Jim Collins and his colleagues developed sensors to detect the Ebola virus. By the time the research was published in 2016, their technology had already been tailored to address the growing threat of the Zika virus.
Now, in 2020, these bioengineers are once again adjusting their sensor, this time to identify the coronavirus.
How Does the Sensor Detect Coronavirus?
The sensor developed by Collins and his team has been proven to detect viruses that cause SARS, measles, influenza, hepatitis C, West Nile, and other diseases. It works with the help of genetic material like DNA and RNA, which bind to the virus present.
The genetic material is freeze-dried into fabric and can remain stable at room temperature for months. If a portion of a virus’ genetic sequence is identified in a person’s mucus or saliva, the sensor is designed to give off a fluorescent signal within one to three hours.
In the case of coronavirus, a Shanghai laboratory sequenced the virus’ genome back in January, so Collins and his team already have the genetic information they need to create an accurate, efficient COVID-19 sensor. They’ve spent weeks testing the sensors’ ability to detect the novel coronavirus in a small saliva sample, with early yet promising results.
Potential Uses for a Coronavirus Sensor
Collins hopes that his team’s coronavirus sensor can be used to address the shortcomings of other screening methods, including temperature checks and standard nasal swabs. If the sensors were placed in facemasks, the presence of the COVID-19 virus could be detected rapidly and with great precision.
“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 explained. “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.”
Standard coronavirus tests take about 24 hours to process, not to mention the additional hours or days until patients are notified of their results. Temperature checks, meanwhile, fail to identify infected people who are asymptomatic, pre-symptomatic, or experiencing symptoms other than a fever. Collins’ sensor technology eliminates those challenges by providing highly specific results in just hours.
A Plan for the Future
Collins’ laboratory aims to being manufacturing masks with sensors for public distribution by the end of summer 2020. If their initial testing continues to go well, they’ll begin trials with “individuals expected to be infected to see if it would work in a real-world setting,” Collins explained.