Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University are modifying a tool originally used to detect the Ebola and Zika viruses to also detect SARS-CoV2 (CoV2), the virus that causes COVID-19.

The team intends to outfit face masks with the ability to emit a fluorescent signal if the built-in sensors detect COVID-19 when the wearer breathes, coughs or sneezes.

The built-in sensors, which can already detect a host of other viruses — including Ebola, Zika, hepatitis C, influenza, West Nile, measles and SARS — are composed of RNA and DNA that adheres to viruses. The researchers freeze dried the genetic material onto a fabric using a lyophilizer, which removes the moisture from the genetic material without killing it.

Incorporated into the interior of a face mask, the researchers believe that the sensor would emit a fluorescent signal in response to the respiratory particles from saliva and mucus along with the genetic sequence of the virus if present. According to researchers, that signal would only be visible with the aid of a fluorimeter, which measures fluorescence.

Although the masks are still in the very early stages of development, the research team has demonstrated during testing that the sensors could detect the presence of coronavirus in saliva samples.

Eventually the team hopes that the masks will be used to expedite coronavirus testing.

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