Coronavirus could soon be detected simply by spitting on a smartphone

·Contributor
A smartphone app could soon offer test results within a minute (Getty)
A smartphone app could soon offer test results within a minute (Getty)

Britain’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has been slowed down hugely by a lack of tests while current tests are slow and difficult to use.

But that could soon change thanks to a new sensor that plugs into a smartphone and can detect the virus which causes COVID-19 in just 60 seconds.

University of Utah electrical and computer engineering professor Massood Tabib-Azar’s planned device is based on technology he designed to combat the Zika virus.

He is now adapting it to work as a coronavirus test, and believes it could be ready for testing in as little as two months, due to the work he has already put in.

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"It can be made to be a standalone device, but it can also be connected to a cellphone," said Tabib-Azar.

"Once you have it connected either wirelessly or directly, you can use the cellphone software and processor to give a warning if you have the virus."

Tabib-Azar's technology, which was profiled in two papers published in IEEE Sensors Journal, involves just a drop of saliva and can produce results in a minute.

The sensor will use single-strand DNA called aptamers in the sensor that would attach to the proteins in the COVID-19 virus molecule if it is present.

A person will plug the small sensor into the cellphone's power jack and launch an app made for the device.

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To test for the presence of the virus, the user would place a drop of saliva on the sensor, and the results would appear on the phone.

It is designed to also test for the virus on the surface of something, such as a table or desk, by brushing a swab on the surface and then on the sensor.

If the virus is present, the DNA strands in the sensor would bind to the virus' proteins and an electrical resistance is measured in the device, signalling a positive result.

Tabib-Azar said the sensor would include an array of tiny devices inside it, each with a DNA strand that looks for a different protein.

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A specific combination of proteins would be unique to just COVID-19.

Tabib-Azar said: "By increasing the number of devices and single-strand DNA, we can increase the sensor's accuracy and reduce the false positives and false negatives."

The sensor is designed to be reusable because it can destroy the previous sample on it by producing a small electrical current to heat up and remove or disintegrate the virus.

As Tabib-Azar has already developed the technology – and a prototype – to detect the Zika virus, he said he could have a prototype of the new COVID-19 sensor for clinical trials in two to three months.

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