SALT LAKE CITY — A University of Utah professor has received funding to develop a coronavirus test that is portable, reusable and can give you results in a matter of seconds. And he may not be far off, because he’s already created a prototype device to do the same thing for the Zika virus.
“Our sensor maintains its speed, specificity and reproducibility while it shortens the time of recognizing and detecting the virus,” said Massood Tabib-Azar, an electrical and computer engineering professor at the University of Utah.
Tabib-Azar’s work really began a year ago, even before we knew of the existence of COVID-19. At the time he was working on a device that people could carry with them to protect themselves while traveling.
“To detect Zika. And the idea was for people traveling to have a personal sensor,” he said.
A sensor that could be used on the individual to test for the virus and on surfaces. Since then, Tabib-Azar has developed the technology and created a prototype to detect the Zika virus.
“Now we are repurposing and redesigning them to detect COVID-19,” he said. And a $200,000 rapid response grant from the National Science Foundation to develop such a sensor, was sure to help.
From the start of the pandemic, testing has been a challenge. But it is also crucial to understanding and responding to the virus. State leaders, for example, use the data gathered from testing to determine guidelines for all of Utahns.
What if there were a #coronavirus test you could own, carry in your pocket and get results in seconds? An engineering professor @UUtah just got the funding to develop it. And he’s already created a prototype of the device to detect #zika. #ksltv at 10 pic.twitter.com/e1oJo8BgJq— Matt Rascon (@MattRasconNews) May 8, 2020
“Coming up with a sensor that can detect coronavirus very quickly … is very critical right now because we want to come up with fast, reliable, reproducible testing capabilities to enable everyone in the United States to be able to monitor the infection rate,” Tabib-Azar said.
Here’s how the test would work. The sensor is about the size of a quarter and would connect to your phone via Bluetooth. To test yourself, all you would need to do is talk or blow into it to give it a saliva sample. The sensor uses single-strand DNA. If the virus is present, those strands would attach to the virus’ proteins. The results would be sent as an alert to an app on your phone in about 60 seconds.
If it is reasonably accurate in detecting COVID-19, it will have a large impact.
–Massood Tabib-Azar, University of Utah
“Since we are detecting the whole virus, we don’t have to spend time for DNA sequencing,” he said. DNA sequencing is the method used by most other tests.
“It’s kind of a gamechanger in that sense,” he said. “Even if it is not 100% accurate. If it is reasonably accurate in detecting COVID-19, it will have a large impact.”
Tabib-Azar said you would even be able to use it to detect the virus on surfaces by using the same process, but with a sample you collect from the surface with a swab or wipe.
“From a personal safety point of view, I think it would be great to have a device like this,” he said. “These devices don’t need to be carried by individuals. We can put them on every corner in the city and have them kind of sample things that are coming their way.”
Once the test is complete, the device would trigger an electric current to disintegrate the virus so you could use it again.
“I think it will help a lot with opening the country and giving people peace of mind that they are in a safe environment,” he said.
Tabib-Azar was confident he could have a working prototype ready from clinical testing in about two months. And then another month or two before they have something they can start shipping out. He estimated it would cost consumers $50 to $60.