The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that we need rapid, accurate, and convenient ways to detect the spread of infection. Researchers at Harvard and MIT have worked together to create a wearable biosensor that can produce a result in just 90 minutes at room temperature without the need for laboratory processing. This could be an enormous game changer.

Unlike other biosensor lab-on-a-chip designs, this new approach does not require the use of live virus material for comparison. Instead, a freeze-dried process extracts the molecules that cells use to produce RNA. The material is stable for long periods of time, and can be activated simply by adding water. By pressing a button on the mask, water is released to turn the sensor “on.” The sensor then reacts to material in the wearer’s breath, and in time lines appear on a test strip that indicate whether the test results are positive or negative for infection.

The astounding aspect of this new test procedure is that the results are highly accurate compared with the current gold standard: reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR). Samples must be sent to a lab for RT-PCR testing, which gives the new biosensor a decided advantage. When a patient is admitted to a hospital these days, they are given a face mask to wear until they have been tested for infection. With this new technology, the mask is the test, and just 90 minutes later, hospital staff can be confident about whether or not the patient has COVID.

Even better, this new testing technology can be incorporated in a variety of wearables and can be modified to detect various pathogens and toxins. These new sensors could play an enormous role in detecting disease and other health risks, preventing the spread of infection or toxic materials, which could reduce healthcare costs.