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A face mask that can detect COVID? Harvard, MIT researchers have the technology to make it possible

Researchers have developed sensor technology that will allow face masks to detect the coronavirus.Wyss Institute at Harvard University

Researchers at Harvard and MIT have developed sensor technology that can be used in face masks to detect if the wearer has the coronavirus, creating a potentially potent tool to stem the spread of the pandemic.

The wearable technology, developed by scientists at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, would be able to detect within 90 minutes whether there are coronavirus particles in a mask-wearer’s breath, researchers said in a scientific study released this week.

The sensor feature, which would be button-activated, would deliver results in a simple format similar to an at-home pregnancy test. The results would be as accurate as gold-standard polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, the researchers said. Results were published in the journal Nature Biotechnology.


“We have essentially shrunk an entire diagnostic laboratory down into a small, synthetic biology-based sensor that works with any face mask,” said Peter Nguyen, a research scientist at the Wyss Institute and coauthor of the study. “In addition to face masks, our programmable biosensors can be integrated into other garments to provide on-the-go detection of dangerous substances.”

The development is the result of three years of research on wearable freeze-dried cell-free technology, researchers said. Scientists first used this technology in a tool to detect the Zika virus in 2015, and after their success, they worked to make the technology wearable.

Once the pandemic hit, the research team pivoted and tried to adapt their technology to contribute to the global effort to fight the coronavirus, researchers said.

“We worked hard, sometimes bringing nonbiological equipment home and assembling devices manually,” said Luis Soenksen, a medical device expert at MIT and coauthor of the study. “It was definitely different from the usual lab infrastructure we’re used to working under, but everything we did has helped us ensure that the sensors would work in real-world pandemic conditions.”


The wearable technology can be adapted to detect a vast array of substances, according to the study. Wearers could monitor their exposure to harmful chemicals through a smartphone application, which researchers said could prove valuable for a number of emergency professionals.

“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.

Researchers are working to find manufacturing partners in order to mass produce the face mask for use during the pandemic. The research was funded by, among others, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, Harvard University, and Johnson & Johnson.