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These face masks with biosensors could detect COVID-19 in your breath

The sensors out of Harvard and MIT could also make their way into lab coats or uniforms to test for other pathogens and toxins.

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By now, most of us are used to donning face masks to protect ourselves and others from COVID-19, and we're only recently starting to shed them as the number of vaccinated people rises. Masks have been effective in stopping or slowing the spread of the virus, health experts say, but what if they could detect the virus in your breath?

The wearer pushes a button on the mask, which provides results within 90 minutes.

Wyss Institute at Harvard University

That's exactly what a team of researchers has been working to make happen. The researchers, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, created wearable biosensors that can be integrated into fabric, essentially letting wearables detect pathogens.

These wearable biosensors have now been attached to standard KN95 face masks to successfully detect the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in a person's breath, according to a study published this week in Nature Biotechnology. 

The sensor is activated with buttons and gives results on a readout strip within 90 minutes, researchers say. They add that levels of accuracy are comparable to standard PCR COVID tests, which detect the virus' genetic material using a lab technique called polymerase chain reaction.

To make the sensor, the scientists relied on a technique that involves extracting and freeze-drying the molecular machinery that cells use to read and write genetic material. Pressing a button on the mask releases a small amount of water into the sensor that reactivates the freeze-dried components so they can produce signals in response to the presence of a targeted molecule.

The biosensors could be used to detect other bacteria, toxins and chemical agents, according to the study. A digital signal could then be sent to a mobile app, allowing the wearer to track exposure to a wide variety of substances. 

"This technology could be incorporated into lab coats for scientists working with hazardous materials or pathogens, scrubs for doctors and nurses, or the uniforms of first responders and military personnel who could be exposed to dangerous pathogens or toxins, such as nerve gas," said Nina Donghia, a staff scientist at the Wyss Institute and a co-author of the study.

We can currently test for viruses in samples of blood, urine, stool and saliva. These are all things that have to be tested in a lab, but these masks could theoretically make for portable testing at home.

So when can you get your hands on one of these COVID-detecting face masks? It's unclear, but the Wyss Institute team says it's searching for partners that would be able to help aid in mass production.