The greatest challenge of containing COVID-19 continues to be that a carrier can be contagious for two days before developing symptoms. It’s impossible to know if you or those around you are sick at any given moment. By the time you do know, one infection could have spread to dozens of people.
But what if there were a way to monitor for the presence of COVID-19 where people go, all day, every day? And not by contact tracing in some smartphone app, but through an actual mechanism that can detect the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus?
That’s just what Jesse Jokerst, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, San Diego, is developing. Working under a $1.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, his lab is testing what he calls a “smoke detector” for COVID-19.
The mechanism is a small blister pack—yes, like the disposable casing that holds pills—that attaches to any mask. It features a bit of tubing that collects the tiny droplets in your breath all day.
“Think about breathing on a cold windowpane,” Jokerst says. “Amplify that for eight hours, scrape it off, and put it in a tube. You’d be surprised how much liquid there is.”
After a day of collection, you squeeze the blister pack to crack it. The droplets mix with a pool of solution. That solution can detect a biomarker from COVID-19 (not the virus itself, but a protein that’s known to be present alongside it in saliva). If the biomarker is detected, the clear solution turns blue instantly. If it’s not, it turns scarlet. There’s nothing vague about the notification at all, and there is no wait time for your results.
The blister packs can be produced for a few cents apiece, meaning that they could literally be disposed of and worn anew every single day. But Jokerst doesn’t imagine the blister pack being used as a personal test so much as a tool for area surveillance. “The value of the wearable is it’s also monitoring your environment,” Jokerst explains. “If you spit in a tube, you’re only testing yourself. If you’re breathing in and out . . . you sample not only your own saliva but your environment, too.”
In other words, Jokerst wants to turn people into walking COVID-19 detectors who, yes, could activate the strip if they are sick, but could activate the strip simply if they are breathing and walking through an infected environment. That means you wouldn’t use this strip at home. Instead, it could be worn by groups stuck together in confined places, like people in prison and essential workers in grocery stores. Hence the smoke alarm analogy.
“In a prison, every [guard] shift could do surveillance,” Jokerst says, noting they might spot COVID-19’s presence in various wards to isolate spread. “At the end of every shift they test . . . that sets the stage to stop an outbreak before it gets going.”
Unfortunately, the promising research is still being validated. By the time the paper is published later this year, Jokerst believes that the U.S. may have vaccinations under control, rendering his product (which he imagines would be produced by some yet-to-be-determined commercial partner) a bit less useful for our nation.
However, he notes that in the developing world, some projections have shown that COVID-19 may linger into 2023. And on top of that, Jokerst says that the biomarker he’s detecting has been part of the original SARS and MERS viruses as well. So while this mask-worn blister pack might not do much to quell the spread of SARS-CoV-2, Jokerst believes it is likely to work for “the next coronavirus.”