This $1 COVID, Flu and Zika test could make going out easier

At this point in COVID, I don’t want to think about how many home testing kits my family burned through (or how much that privilege cost my bank account). And yet for school-certified PCR tests, whenever my kids got a runny nose, they had to sit in pharmacy drive-throughs while Mom and Dad in the front seat dab and mix samples.

We’ve got to come up with something better, and it turns out researchers at Johns Hopkins University did. A team at the university’s Whiting School of Engineering, led by Associate Professor Ishan Barman, has developed a COVID sensor smaller than a postage stamp. All you have to do is literally spit on it (or, more likely, wipe your mouth), and in 10 minutes it can be scanned much like a barcode to see if you have COVID with the same accuracy as a PCR – have test. (It can also test for all sorts of other viral infections, like H1N1 and Zika.) Researchers believe that with this type of sensor, we can remove the burden of testing at home or at a pharmacy and instead test for COVID directly in large public spaces.

[Photo: courtesy Johns Hopkins University]

“The first thing we think of is testing at airports and in stadiums,” says Barman. “We think these sensors could be read with a handheld. . . Readers, like the infrared gun thermometers used today.” Much like an arena attendant would scan your ticket with a handheld barcode reader, Barman imagines he would scan your saliva sample prior to entry.

How does this technology actually work? It breaks down into three components. First you have the scanner (a handheld device that existed prior to this new research). It’s technically a Raman spectrometer, which fires laser at viruses. The exact way these laser photons bounce off the microbes provides a sort of viral thumbprint. Next comes the new sensor material, a metal antenna that uses nanotechnology to increase the laser’s effectiveness in analyzing the sample. It’s essentially an amplifier that improves the spectrometer’s view by a whopping eight orders of magnitude, allowing it to see even trace amounts of viruses in a sample. Eventually, the team constructed an AI model that allows them to actually translate these photon patterns into readable viral fingerprints.

In practice, you would dab or spit on the sensor – technically the system only needs one drop (and the UX to get that drop on the sensor requires some development) – wait 10 minutes and a staff member would wipe it with the Raman scan spectrometer to see if you were positive for SARS-CoV-2 or another virus. Because of the way the system is set up, the AI ​​can constantly learn how to detect more viruses. So while the sensor has been tested on the aforementioned COVID-19, H1N1 and Zika, if developed sufficiently it can theoretically detect any virus present in your saliva – and it can detect these different infections all at once. What this might mean for living with COVID-19 as an endemic holds promise for public health. Rather than relying on vaccination certificates or PCR tests, which could be days old by the time results come in, Barman believes any large gathering space 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 in front of a stadium is a bit disgusting! In addition, manufacturing enough sensors could be expensive or practically difficult. Technically, these sensors are reusable. But because of their extreme sensitivity to environmental viruses, Barman envisions consumers treating them as disposable rather than sterilizing them for reuse. (On the other hand, we heard the same argument about N95 masks before there were shortages, proving that reuse was entirely possible with a little more effort.)

The device, as detailed in the latest publication, costs about $20 to manufacture, but Barman says it would cost about half to a third of that at scale. Meanwhile, the lab is also working on a yet-to-be-released modification of the sensor material that would bring prices down to just $1 per test — what you need for mass deployment in public spaces. Barman’s team patented this technology and hopes to get FDA approval within six months before bringing it to market in about a year.

“If you think about airports and stuff, it’s not that difficult [to integrate our technology] because today they can swab your hands and test them for gunpowder and drug residue,” says Barman. “There is no problem for these applications. It can be a perfect fit.” This $1 COVID, Flu and Zika test could make going out easier


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