- In what could have major ramifications for workers in a host of industries including construction, researchers at the University of California San Diego are developing a color-changing test strip that can be stuck on a mask and used to detect COVID-19 in a user’s breath or saliva.
- The project, which received $1.3 million from the National Institutes of Health, is aimed at providing simple, affordable and reliable surveillance for COVID-19 infections that can be done daily and easily implemented in resource-poor settings such as constrution sites, according to a news release.
- The test strips, or stickers, will be designed to adhere to any type of mask, and will detect the presence of protein-cleaving molecules, called proteases, that are produced from infection with the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
As the user breathes through the mask, particles — including SARS-CoV-2 proteases if the user is infected — will accumulate in the test strip. At the end of the day or during a mask change, the user can conduct the test by squeezing a blister pack to release nanoparticles that change color in the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 proteases.
A control line on the test strip will show what a positive result should look like.
“In many ways, masks are the perfect ‘wearable’ sensor for our current world,” said Jesse Jokerst, professor of nanoengineering at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering and lead principal investigator of the project, in the release. “We’re taking what many people are already wearing and repurposing them, so we can quickly and easily identify new infections and protect vulnerable communities.”
Jokerst said, however, that the strips are not meant to replace other COVID-19 testing protocols.
“Think of this as a surveillance approach, similar to having a smoke detector in your house,” he said. “This would just sit in the background every day and if it gets triggered, then you know there’s a problem and that’s when you would look into it with more sophisticated testing,”
The test strips can be easily mass produced via roll-to-roll processing, he said, keeping costs down to a few cents per strip. He told NBC San Diego that the concept should be approved this summer and the strips would be ready for distribution by year's end. The strips would cost about $1 a piece, he added.
Jokerst is teaming up with researchers at UC San Diego School of Medicine to test the strips first on COVID-19-positive saliva samples, then on patients and healthcare workers at Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System.
Face coverings have become an invaluable tool to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 on jobsites. Although there is no nationwide mask mandate for construction sites, many states and local jurisdictions have requirements for wearing them at work.
That could soon change, as President Joe Biden directed OSHA last week to consider a national emergency temporary standard for COVID-19 in the workplace, including whether masks should be worn at work, a step OSHA declined to take under the Trump administration. If the agency decides to implement a nationwide ETS, it would need to do so by March 15.