Utah computer engineering professor making COVID-19 smartphone sensor

The sensor would send results to a phone via Bluetooth within 60 seconds
Posted at 8:16 AM, May 10, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-10 10:58:06-04

SALT LAKE CITY — Imagine being able to detect Coronavirus with a smartphone. Well, that's exactly what they're working on at the University of Utah.

What started as a device to help detect a completely different virus, could become a big part of tracking COVID-19.

Massood Tabib-Azar, the lead engineer working on this project said, "We started this project about 12 months ago, and the main idea was to enable people to have their own personal sensors to detect Zika in places that they travel."

The plan is to take the Zika virus sensor and program it to identify COVID-19 instead.

"Our prototype is going to be around the size of a quarter and it would be communicating with a cell phone using bluetooth," said Tabib-Azar.

Researchers say if someone were to breathe, cough, sneeze, or blow on the sensor, it would be able to tell if someone had COVID-19.

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

The results would then be displayed on a smartphone within 60 seconds.

Engineers say it could also test for the virus on a surface by using a swab and placing it onto the sensor.

Tabib-Azar says he wants to make it possible to send the results to health agencies too.

"You’d push the button and it can send to a central location, Centers for Disease Control, or any other authority that you’d select in your options and then in real time can update the map," said Tabib-Azar.

In theory, this could work with the Healthy Together app developed for the state of Utah and any other COVID-19 tracking apps.

The sensor will be reusable because it can destroy the previous sample with a small electrical current which heats up and disintegrates the virus.

Tabib-Azar sasid, "In principle, you can put these devices in everyone’s hand, and once we produce them in large scale inexpensively, then it’s like any other that people want to have with them."

The plan is to have a working prototype in two months before submitting it for clinical trials, which are expected to last another month, so hopefully in three months time this will be something any of us can use.

"This way you can test yourself every half a day, or whenever you want, and have some peace of mind that you are healthy and your environment is healthy," said Tabib-Azar.

This device could give doctors a clearer and more accurate picture of where COVID-19 hot spots are and allow them to collect test results easier.

It would also be a less uncomfortable test to administer than the current method of a nasopharyngeal swab.

Tabib-Azar received a $200,000 National Science Foundation Rapid Response Research grant to develop this portable and reusable coronavirus sensor.