It has been just over a year since we saw the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the United States and the pandemic is unfortunately still going strong. While the inadequacy of healthcare in our country has certainly been a major factor, it isn’t the only one. Despite warnings against social gatherings, many people continue to spend time in groups and even neglect to wear masks. It’s easy for people to justify that behavior when they “feel fine,” even though they could still be transmitting the coronavirus. That is why a team of researchers from the University of California San Diego have developed a simple, inexpensive test strip that can be attached to face masks to detect COVID-19.
The goal here isn’t to completely replace more comprehensive testing, but rather to give people an easy and nearly foolproof way to see if they potentially have a COVID-19 infection. If you just have the sniffles, it is easy to dismiss your symptoms as something like allergies. Add to that the fact that many carriers of COVID-19 are asymptomatic and you have the perfect recipe for a pandemic like the one we’ve been living through. Test strips like these provide a visual indication that you need to get tested immediately and that you need to avoid other people in the meantime. The strips are cheap and can be stuck directly onto face masks, so there is no excuse not to use them if they’re available to you.
These test strips work by collecting the wearer’s breath and saliva throughout the day. At the end of the day or during a mask change, the user simply squeezes the blister pack that is built into the test strip. That will mix the collected particulates with the testing solution, which will change color if SARS-CoV-2 proteases are present. Proteases are molecules that destroy proteins and they are produced as a result of a SARS-CoV-2 infection. Those were also produced by infections from the original SARS virus in 2003 and the MERS virus. This does mean that these test strips would detect the presence of other viruses, but that is hardly a problem — you should get tested if you have any of these related viral infections. Of course, SARS-CoV-2 would be the most likely culprit at this time.
The UC San Diego team is working to get these test strips available to frontline workers and the general public as soon as possible, but it will still take some time. Their project has already received a $1.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health and is part of their Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics Radical (RADx-rad) program intended to fight COVID-19. They’re currently working with the UC San Diego School of Medicine to test the strips on known COVID-19 saliva samples and will likely soon begin limited real-world tests.