Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...

This mask tests for COVID-19 while you’re wearing it

Published Jan 27th, 2021 3:45PM EST
Coronavirus Test
Image: zigres/Adobe

If you buy through a BGR link, we may earn an affiliate commission, helping support our expert product labs.

  • Researchers from UC San Diego have developed a COVID-19 test that can be placed on the outside of a face mask where it would be exposed to droplets from the air that might contain the virus.
  • The test can detect a specific coronavirus component and change color to tell the user if they have been exposed to a COVID-19 carrier.
  • The National Institutes of Health gave the university $1.3 million to further develop the concept.
  • If successful, the COVID-19 test could tell people whether they’ve been exposed while interacting with others. Immediate action, including isolation and PCR testing, can then be considered.

The number of daily COVID-19 cases has been dropping steadily since January 8th, but the US is still registering around 150,000 cases a day. Many people are still at risk of contracting the infection. The number of vaccinations is steadily increasing, but their effect won’t be seen for quite a while. Full immunity develops around a week after the second dose. On top of that, a large percentage of the population in a community needs to be vaccinated for herd immunity to appear, at which point the number of infections would drop significantly.

On top of that, there are at least three distinct mutations that concern researchers: The UK, South African, and Brazilian strains. They’re all more infectious and could drive new waves of illness. The UK mutation might be more deadly as well, and the South African variant might evade vaccines to some degree.

Prevention is still the best strategy against COVID-19, and that includes respecting the same health measures that public health agencies have been recommending for about a year now. Quick testing and self-isolation are also recommended if a coronavirus infection is suspected. And a brilliant test that you can wear on your mask might tell you whether you’ve been exposed to the virus in almost real-time.

COVID-19 testing isn’t as problematic as it used to be, and there are at-home tests that anybody can get. But testing might not always confirm an infection, especially if a person gets tested too soon after the exposure to SARS-CoV-2. The virus needs time to incubate, to multiply in human cells, so it’s actually detectable in PCR tests. Knowing for certain that you might have been exposed to the virus is a key piece of information, and that’s what the US San Diego researchers have been working on.

Coronavirus Test
The UC San Diego coronavirus exposure test sits on a mask, collecting droplets from the air. Image source: UC San Diego via KGTV

The UCSD scientists have come up with a simple test that can be applied to the exterior of any face mask and worn while you’re out and about, exposed to other people. The test looks for the presence of a specific COVID-19 protease in our breath and will detect that substance in droplets that reach the outer surface of masks.

“This could have a really profound impact on the trajectory of the pandemic,” UCSD professor Jesse Jokerst told KGTV.

The professor explained that all a person would have to do at the end of the day is to click a blister pack in the test. If it changes color, similar to how a pregnancy test works, it means the person has been exposed to an infected person. The test won’t tell you whether you’re infected or who spread those SARS-CoV-2-laden droplets in your direction for the test to pick them up.

But this early warning would tell you to avoid other people for a few days and then seek a proper test to see whether those droplets managed to sneak through the various layers of the mask.

“That’s what we were trying to develop. It’s a device that could say, ‘Hey, today there’s an elevated risk, and everybody should seek some additional testing,'” Jokerst explained.

The university won a $1.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop this sticker and assess its accuracy. The test would cost just pennies, if it ever gets approved for real-world use, and could be a game-changer for managing the pandemic and any other future dangerous epidemic.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.

More Science