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Face Masks Evolving To Detect Leaks And Test For COVID

Whether we like it or not, face masks are here to stay. So it’s good to see mask technology evolving, with a new prototype that can detect leaks and even one that can diagnose COVID-19.

Described as a “Fitbit for the face”, a mask with a smart sensor that can automatically detect if a mask is properly fitted has been unveiled by Dr Josiah Hester and colleagues at Northwestern University in Illinois, after consultation with clinicians during the first wave of COVID in 2020.

Dr Hester says he was asked, “How do I know if my mask is fitting if I’m on a 12-hour shift?”

The resulting innovation is a small electronic module holding sensors that attaches inside a standard medical-grade N95 mask, so if a mask is bumped the wearer will be alerted, preventing the risk of accidental infection.

Other sensors detect a drop in airflow resistance, which could also indicate a leak due to improper fit.

The single prototype cost around $250, with the price destined to be slashed the more units are produced.

The FaceBit attaches to a mask with magnets, so it can be easily removed and reattached once a mask wears out.

Clinical trials still need to be undertaken.

Then there’s the lab at Harvard that’s found a way to put a COVID test inside an N95 mask, giving results comparable to a PCR test within 90 minutes – for around $7.

According to one of the developers, Peter Nguyen, “In essence, our technology miniaturises an entire laboratory onto a wearable garment.

“It combines the high accuracy of PCR tests with the speed and low cost of antigen tests.”

The test can be activated after about 30 minutes, but most likely you would wear it all day. The mask accumulates what you breathe into it. You then press a button and within an hour receive your result, then throw it away.

The process involves a biosensor that uses engineered genetic circuits to create sensors and detectors for a desired molecular target.

Pressing the button releases a small amount of water that reactivates freeze-dried components that can then produce signals in response to the presence of that target, such as COVID-19.

Basically, they’ve found a way to take complicated reactions that normally need a lab to decipher, then freeze-dried them into a powder.

The mask could also be adapted to detect flu or tuberculosis.

They are in talks to license the technology.

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