Harvard and MIT researchers created a face mask that tests your breath for COVID-19

COVID-detecting face mask
The wFDCF face mask can be integrated into any standard face mask. The wearer pushes a button on the mask that releases a small amount of water into the system, which provides results within 90 minutes. Wyss Institute at Harvard University
  • Researchers at Harvard and MIT pioneered a biosensor that can test for COVID-19.
  • The sensor is small enough to embed inside a face mask and provides results in 90 minutes.
  • The technology could be used to test for other pathogens in the next pandemic.
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Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, two of the most vital public health messages have been to wear a mask around others and get tested if you feel sick.

A team of Harvard and MIT researchers have come up with an invention that combines the two strategies for stopping the spread of respiratory illness. They pioneered a wearable biosensor that can do the work of an entire laboratory – and it’s small enough to clip onto a face mask.

Wearers breathe into their masks for 15 to 30 minutes, press a button on the sensor, and within 90 more minutes, their COVID test results show up on a readout strip similar to a pregnancy test.

The invention is described in greater detail in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

“For every single person that has this diagnostic face mask, not only are you preventing the virus from spreading, you’re actually pinpointing whether or not they have it relatively rapidly,” said co-first author Peter Nguyen, a research scientist at Harvard’s Wyss Institute.

The technology can be used to test for any pathogen

The sensor is built on past research from Wyss Core Faculty member and senior author Jim Collins, who pioneered the wearable freeze-dried cell-free (wFDCF) technology.

To create the sensor, the team extracted and freeze-dried the molecular machinery that cells use to identify genetic material like DNA and RNA. That information acts as a “fingerprint” for the sensor to identify the virus, said co-first author Luis Soenksen, a postdoctoral fellow at the Wyss Institute.

The sensor is activated with the press of a button, which releases a small amount of water to rehydrate the freeze-dried components.

The same technology could be used to identify another pathogen, like influenza. The detection is so precise – down to the individual building blocks of DNA – that it could even differentiate between COVID variants.

What’s more, the diagnostic system could be integrated directly into fabric to bypass the sensor entirely. Soenksen said that the technology could be applied in endless ways, from military suits that can detect harmful chemical agents to lab coats that test for drug-resistant bacteria.

The futuristic face mask could prepare us for the next pandemic

The creation of a diagnostic device inside of a face mask could eliminate many barriers to real-time testing.

The researchers said the testing sensitivity is comparable to the gold-standard RT-PCR tests, and it turns out results relatively quickly. The device is also inexpensive – without accounting for packaging, the prototype cost five dollars to make, and the final product could be made for even less.

The team is looking for commercial partners to help produce the sensor, so don’t expect to see it on shelves right away. But even if face masks with built-in virus sensors are not available during this pandemic, they could help stop the next one, assuming we know what pathogen we’re looking for.

“By bringing the laboratory to the person, you can get a much higher resolution of how quickly people are getting infected,” Nguyen said.