Scientists are developing a face mask produced using 3D-printing that can test large groups of people for Coronavirus in thirty minutes. The unique approach could help curb the outbreak of the disease and enable mass screening that would determine if a person is infectious or not even before symptoms are present.
This low cost mask, soon to be trialed at the University of Leicester in the UK, was originally developed for the swift diagnoses of tuberculosis (TB). Researchers say the device has the potential to save millions of lives across the world every year through early detection of a range of serious respiratory infections and diseases.
It uses a simple duck-billed face mask adapted using 3D printed strips that can trap exhaled microbes while the mask is worn for 30 minutes. Using the mask to screen for Coronavirus could allow very large groups to be checked at once, potentially helping to curb the spread of the virus and preventing long stays in quarantine. Current diagnosis involves taking swabs from the throat and nose, and deeper respiratory samples. The samples are sent to secure labs for testing, which can take up to 72 hours.
Mike Barer, Professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Leicester, said:
“Coronavirus is spread from the mouth, throat and respiration system of infected individuals. This new approach is exciting because it could help us determine whether a person is infectious or not, even before symptoms of the virus have appeared.”
“Measuring how much of the virus is breathed out by using the mask sampling approach will allow us to compare levels of the virus exhaled by different individuals, and could help us focus control efforts on preventing spread. The mask can easily be processed in any standard virus diagnostic laboratory. Successful development of this approach could be transformative.”
The University of Leicester have awarded the team a £20,000 (€22,800) research grant as part of the global drive to manage the Coronavirus outbreak. The trials will be conducted at the University of Leicester in partnership with the UK National Health Service, and where possible, with international partners. They will first target patients with other respiratory virus infections and compare masks with standard throat swab results. If successful the team hopes to start trials with Covid-19 infections within weeks.
Low Cost Masks
Materials for each mask currently cost less than €2.50 with the inserts individually 3D printed. If manufactured on an industrial scale, the sampling masks would cost mere cents. The technology being used by NHS TB services in Leicester is due to be rolled out in two other UK hospitals in six months. The masks allow for at home testing and will be particularly beneficial in helping hard to reach communities in places like India, South Africa and Bangladesh, where TB is rife.
TB is usually diagnosed with a blood test, chest x-ray, phlegm sample and in some cases a bronchoscopy. Often when these symptoms are present, the infection has already been in the body for a few weeks and the person may have infected many others. Unlike a blood test, which cannot differentiate between active and dormant TB, the new mask provides rapid detection of bacteria.
The device is simple and easy to use, and does not require the invasive investigation to gather sputum samples from deep within the lungs currently used in TB diagnosis. Researchers worked in conjunction with a team at the University of Pretoria in South Africa to sample 24 people with confirmed TB during a 24-hour period. The trial showed 86.5 percent of the patients tested positive for TB through the use of the mask compared to just 20.5 percent from sputum. In a further trial of 20 patients with TB symptoms, four patients with negative sputum tested positive with the mask. The presence of TB was only detected in their sputum six weeks later.
The study also found that that infectious TB was exhaled and spread when patients were asleep, demonstrating that a cough may not be required to spread the infection. Professor Barer added:
“This is the first time that exhalation from prospective patients with TB can be captured in such a quick and simple way. This pioneering research provides the opportunity to save thousands of lives every year across the world by early detection of a treatable disease—it’s world-changing. The fact that the mask is a low cost and more accurate option for detecting live TB before it appears in sputum has huge implications for early detection of the disease and patients having earlier access to treatment.”
TB is the largest infectious cause of death globally, affecting up to 323,000 people in Europe every year and over 10 million people worldwide.