This $1 COVID, Flu, and Zika Test Could Make Going Out Easy

At this point in COVID, I don’t want to think about how many home test kits my family has burned out (or what that privilege cost my bank account). And even still, my kids had to sit in the pharmacy drive-throughs, with Mom and Dad taking samples and mixing in the front seats, for school-certified PCR tests whenever they got a runny nose.

We should be able to come up with something better than this, and it turns out researchers at Johns Hopkins University have done just that. A team from the university’s Whiting School of Engineering, led by associate professor Ishan Barman, has developed a COVID sensor smaller than a postage stamp. Literally, all you have to do is spit on it (or, more likely, wipe your mouth), and in 10 minutes it can be scanned just like a barcode to see if you have COVID with the same accuracy as a PCR. test. (It can also test for all sorts of other viral infections like H1N1 and Zika.) Using this type of sensor, researchers think we could take the test burden off at home or in a pharmacy and instead test for COVID directly in large public areas.

[Photo: courtesy Johns Hopkins University]“The first thing we think about is testing at airports and stadiums,” says Barman. “We think that these sensors can be read handheld. † † readers, such as the infrared gun thermometers in use today.” Just like an arena employee scans your ticket with a handheld barcode reader, Bartender imagines they would scan your saliva sample before entering.

How does this technology actually work? It breaks down into three components. First, you have the scanner (a handheld device that existed before this new study). It’s technically a Raman spectrometer, firing lasers at viruses. The exact way these laser photons bounce off the microbes produces a kind of viral fingerprint. Next up is the new sensor material, a metal antenna that uses nanotechnology to increase the effectiveness of the laser in analyzing the sample. It’s essentially an amplifier that improves the spectrometer’s vision by as much as eight orders of magnitude, allowing it to see even trace amounts of viruses in a sample. Finally, the team constructed an AI model, which allows them to actually translate these photon patterns into readable viral thumbprints.

In practice you would either wipe or spit the sensor – technically the system only needs a drop (and the UX to get that drop on the sensor requires some development) – wait 10 minutes and an employee scans it with the Raman spectrometer to to see if you were positive for SARS-CoV-2 or another virus. The way the system is built allows the AI ​​to continuously learn how to identify more viruses. So while tested for the aforementioned COVID-19, H1N1, and Zika, with enough development, the sensor could theoretically detect any virus present in your saliva — and it can detect these different infections all at once. What that could mean for living with COVID-19 as an endemic is promising for public health. Rather than relying on vaccination passports or PCR tests that may be out of date for days by the time the results arrive, Barman believes any major collection facility could use his lab’s sensor technology as a real-time screening tool.

[Photo: courtesy Johns Hopkins University]Is there a catch? Well, the prospect of 30,000 people spitting outside a stadium is a bit disgusting to consider! In addition, producing sufficient sensors can be expensive or practically difficult. Technically, these sensors are reusable. But because of their extreme susceptibility to environmental viruses, Barman envisions consumers treating them as disposables rather than sterilizing them for reuse. (On the other hand, we heard the same argument about N95 masks before there were shortages, showing that reuse was completely possible with a little more effort.)

The device, as described in the most recent paper, costs about $20 to manufacture, but Barman says it would cost about half to a third of that to scale. Meanwhile, the lab is also working on a yet-to-be-published change to the sensor material, which would bring the price down to just $1 per test — which is what you need to be viable for mass use in public areas. Barman’s team has patented this technology and hopes to get FDA approval within six months before launching it on the market in about a year.

“When you think about airports and so on, it’s not that hard [to integrate our technology] because even today they can swab your hands and test for gunpowder and drug residue,” says Barman. “There is no problem for those applications. It can fit right in.”

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