Complex Made Simple

Technology sensing COVID-19 on smartphones, armbands, facemasks, and under your skin and nose

COVID-19 has sparked a global race to produce biosensors that can literally sniff the presence of the disease and help us contain it

The biosensors market is valued at $25.5 billion in 2021 and is projected to reach $36.7 bn by 2026 Tiny sensors that fit into your smartphone can detect COVID-19 on surfaces Pentagon researchers have created a sensor that can detect a COVID-19 infection in the blood

COVID-19 has sparked a global race to produce biosensors that can literally sniff the presence of the disease and help us contain it. 

The technology exists and it’s a matter of who’s first to test and market it, and it’s such a big quest that even the Pentagon and NASA are in on it.

The biosensors market is valued at $25.5 billion in 2021 and is projected to reach $36.7 bn by 2026, growing annually at 7.5% from 2021 to 2026.

Sensors in smartphones

General Electric scientists are developing tiny sensors that fit into your smartphone and other smart devices like smartwatches, to detect COVID-19 on surfaces, with the hope of expanding the types of viruses they can detect further down the line. 

Radislav Potyrailo, a principal scientist at GE Research and principal investigator on the project, said in GE’s press release: “One of the first lines of defense against any virus is avoiding exposure, which is easier said than done when you can’t see it.”

Some apps and smartphone sensors already work to analyze air quality or monitor glucose levels. 

And GE isn’t the first organization to try and integrate sensors into smartphones to detect COVID-19.

A Caltech team worked on a five-cent sensor last year that detects the virus in just 10 minutes, however, it required saliva or a drop of blood to operate.

Sensors in facemasks

Our breath holds a multitude of biomarkers, including potentially those indicating the presence of SARS-CoV-2. Those infected with the virus are prone to exhale proteases, enzymes that speed up the breakdown of proteins, related to the new virus. 

This has led researchers at the University of California, San Diego to work on developing a wearable sensor that can be attached to masks to detect the presence of these proteases and therefore the COVID-19 virus.

The sensor, which is in the process of being perfected, consists of a strip and a small blister pack compartment. The strip’s surface would collect particles from exhaled breath and the user simply squeezes on the blister pack, which mixes special nanoparticles with the proteases that may exist on the strip’s surface. If they do, the color changes, indicating the presence of the proteases and therefore the virus.

­­Producing each test strip should be possible for only a few cents.

Read: The legal and illegal COVID-19 vaccine trade: Big money rolling in

Read: COVID-19 variants behind latest UK ban on both Qatar and Oman passenger flights

Sensors under the skin

Pentagon researchers have created a sensor that can detect a COVID-19 infection in the blood.

The sensor, a subdermal implant, is reportedly a “tissue-like gel” that was engineered to continuously test the wearer’s blood and signals the potential of having virus symptoms.

The sensor can transmit information within three to five minutes, he said.

The idea is to stop COVID-19 infections in their tracks before the virus spreads.

The pentagon also revealed a dialysis-like machine that removes the virus from blood using a filter that has proven promising in early trials.

Sensors in armband 

Hyve Dynamics, a sensory technology company founded in 2019 has unveiled a health-monitoring armband that offers a new way to detect symptoms of illness.

The armband is embedded with lightweight sensors that track multiple points of wearer data in real-time, including heart rate, respiration, temperature, and blood oxygen levels.  

The technology can register patterns in physiological changes (an intermittent fever, for example, would register differently than a continuous one) and show how the timings of certain changes coincide. If multiple symptoms of coronavirus are detected in the early stages of infection, the individual can then be flagged for testing and isolation early, reducing their chance of spreading the illness to others.

Sensors under our noses 

NASA received funding of $3.8 million to enhance the E-Nose device it developed using patented nanosensors and nanosensor array technologies for COVID-19 detection. 

E-Nose is used to help monitor air quality inside spacecraft, but NASA is advancing it to detect COVID-19 by “sniffing” a person’s breath. E-Nose could help mitigate the spread of the virus in a manner similar to how temperature checks are used to screen individuals before entering shared indoor spaces, such as a local grocery store or restaurant.

Image credit: NASA.gov

This application of E-Nose will work by measuring volatile organic compounds, the gases produced from an infection from a virus-like SARS-CoV-2.  

This latest prototype includes Bluetooth capabilities and a smartphone app that processes, displays, and transmits sensor data. The sensor array chips are swappable, and therefore can be updated with improved sensors. E-Nose can be deployed in factories, airports, grocery stores, and businesses of all sorts to rapidly screen for active infections.