Skip to main content
Move the World.
Coronavirus Face Mask

Lead Image © Visuals / Unsplash

Researchers from MIT and Harvard are collaborating on a face mask that produces a fluorescent signal if the wearer is infected with the novel coronavirus.

Though the project is still in the early stages, the researchers believe their coronavirus-detecting face mask could be ready for human testing within a few weeks — and ready for deployment before the end of this summer.

Building a Coronavirus-Detecting Face Mask

The team behind the coronavirus-detecting face mask isn't starting from scratch with their research. In 2016, they published a study detailing their creation of a paper-embedded sensor to detect the Zika virus in blood samples.

The sensor itself contained a freeze-dried bit of the Zika virus's genetic material. If the sensor encountered two things — moisture and the virus's genetic sequence — it gave off a detectable signal.

By 2018, the scientists had proven that they could embed the sensor into cloth, plastic, and other materials. They'd also proven that they could repurpose it to detect several other viruses, including the one that causes SARS.

When the coronavirus pandemic began, the scientists quickly pivoted their research to diagnosing COVID-19, and the idea to embed the sensor in face masks — which people already have to wear — just made sense.

"When we speak, we give off a good amount of vapor," MIT bioengineer James Collins told the Allen Institute. "If you're infected, you also give off viral particles, not only in coughing and sneezing, but also when speaking, in small droplets and in vapor."

Diagnosing COVID-19 with currently available tests takes about 24 hours, but the scientists' coronavirus-detecting face mask could provide much quicker results.

"The notion is if you're wearing a mask, that within 2 to 3 hours you could have a readout as to whether you're infected," Collins said.

The researchers have been spending the past several weeks testing the sensor's ability to give off a fluorescent signal when it detects the coronavirus in saliva samples, Collins told Business Insider.

Once the sensor is ready, they'll have to decide how they want to incorporate it into a face mask — right now, they're debating between embedding it into a mask themselves or designing a sensor system that could be attached to existing masks.

Whichever option they choose, the goal is to have a coronavirus-detecting face mask ready for human trials within a few weeks — and then one ready for deployment within months.

"We're targeting to get the face mask diagnostics out in the summer so they can be part of the way we can ease this crisis," Collins told the Allen Institute.

The scientists haven't mentioned what their coronavirus-detecting face mask might cost, but the Zika sensors had cost about $20 each in 2016. For comparison, the CDC's standard coronavirus test costs about $36.

Diagnosing COVID-19 on the Fly

Once the scientists deploy their coronavirus-detecting face mask, Collins envisions officials using handheld fluorometers, which cost about a dollar, to conduct mask scans in public as a more accurate alternative to temperature scans.

"As we open up our transit system, you could envision it being used in airports as we go through security, as we wait to get on a plane," he told Business Insider.

"The notion is if you're wearing a mask, that within 2 to 3 hours you could have a readout as to whether you're infected."

James Collins

Essential workers and people regularly exposed to the coronavirus could conduct their own checks, taking off their masks periodically to scan for the signal.

Members of the general public could do the same, and hospitals could use the masks as a pre-screening tool for people waiting to be tested for COVID-19.

"If you had an inexpensive mask, you could envision having widespread distribution, and using the masks to diagnose those individuals who are at the early stages of infection who are yet to be symptomatic," Collins told the Allen Institute.

We'd love to hear from you! If you have a comment about this article or if you have a tip for a future Freethink story, please email us at tips@freethink.com.

Up Next

If you want to understand a problem, talk to the people working on solutions. Join us as we meet the people and explore the ideas on the frontlines of an unprecedented global response.

Healthcare
New Tool Seeks to Protect Those Reusing Coronavirus Masks
Coronavirus Masks
Healthcare
New Tool Seeks to Protect Those Reusing Coronavirus Masks
A group of researchers launched a website that teaches healthcare workers everything they need to know about reusing coronavirus masks as safely as possible.

A group of researchers launched a website that teaches healthcare workers everything they need to know about reusing coronavirus masks as safely as possible.

Public Health
Tons of Groups Are Improvising Coronavirus PPE. But Who Will Test It?
Coronavirus PPE
Public Health
Tons of Groups Are Improvising Coronavirus PPE. But Who Will Test It?
A newly formed group is gathering designs for coronavirus PPE and coordinating with testers to make sure the makeshift supplies are safe for use.

A newly formed group is gathering designs for coronavirus PPE and coordinating with testers to make sure the makeshift supplies are safe for use.

Public Health
Doctors Test Solution for COVID-19 Phenomena, Silent Hypoxia
Silent Hypoxia
Public Health
Doctors Test Solution for COVID-19 Phenomena, Silent Hypoxia
Doctors treating COVID-19 patients are testing the ability of common blood thinners to address silent hypoxia, one of the disease’s most alarming phenomena.

Doctors treating COVID-19 patients are testing the ability of common blood thinners to address silent hypoxia, one of the disease’s most alarming phenomena.

Public Health
Where Can You Get Tested for the Coronavirus?
Get Tested for the Coronavirus
Public Health
Where Can You Get Tested for the Coronavirus?
Everything you need to know to get tested for the coronavirus, including COVID-19 testing requirements and resources to help you find testing sites.

Everything you need to know to get tested for the coronavirus, including COVID-19 testing requirements and resources to help you find testing sites.

Public Health
FDA Authorizes First At-Home Coronavirus Test Kit
At-Home Coronavirus Test
Public Health
FDA Authorizes First At-Home Coronavirus Test Kit
The FDA has authorized LabCorp’s at-home coronavirus test kit, meaning people no longer need to leave their houses to find out if they have COVID-19.

The FDA has authorized LabCorp’s at-home coronavirus test kit, meaning people no longer need to leave their houses to find out if they have COVID-19.

Public Health
Ghana Uses Drones to Speed Up Coronavirus Testing
Speed Up Coronavirus Testing
Public Health
Ghana Uses Drones to Speed Up Coronavirus Testing
In Ghana, Zipline is helping speed up coronavirus testing by using drones to deliver test samples, and it wants to bring the service to the U.S.

In Ghana, Zipline is helping speed up coronavirus testing by using drones to deliver test samples, and it wants to bring the service to the U.S.

Sonification
Why Scientists Are Turning the Coronavirus’ Structure Into Music
Coronavirus Structure
Sonification
Why Scientists Are Turning the Coronavirus’ Structure Into Music
MIT scientists have translated a key part of the coronavirus’ structure into music — and the song could help researchers find a way to stop the virus.

MIT scientists have translated a key part of the coronavirus’ structure into music — and the song could help researchers find a way to stop the virus.

Public Health
Group Coronavirus Testing Helps Make Most of Limited Kits
Group Coronavirus Testing
Public Health
Group Coronavirus Testing Helps Make Most of Limited Kits
Researchers across the globe are testing the efficacy of group coronavirus testing — using one kit for multiple patients — with promising results.

Researchers across the globe are testing the efficacy of group coronavirus testing — using one kit for multiple patients — with promising results.