A team of scientists have developed a ‘Covid sensor’ which could detect whether someone in a room is infected with the coronavirus in as little as 15 minutes.
The technology could provide an affordable way to screen large numbers of people in spaces including aircraft cabins, care homes, classrooms and offices.
The device, created by Cambridgeshire-based firm RoboScientific, uses sensors that can detect a distinct smell which results from changes to the chemicals on the skin or in the breath of Covid-infected people.
The virus causes a change to the volatile organic compounds (VOC) which make up the body odour – generating a ‘fingerprint’ which can not be detected by humans but can be detected by the device.
The device, which can be mounted on a wall or ceiling, is programmed to automatically send positive results to the designated person via SMS or email.
A study has found that a Covid detection device could be accurate up to 100 per cent of the time as research is set to continue in the hope it could be used to detect the virus in spaces including airplane cabins and school classrooms and replace the need for large-scale testing
Although in its early stages, research by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and Durham University shows the device has an accuracy rate of between 98 and 100 per cent.
This would mean they are far more accurate than lateral flow tests and equally accurate as PCR tests.
The devices cost £5,000 and, although not cheap, could reduce the need for frequent PCR and lateral flow testing on a large scale.
Professor James Logan, Head of the Department of Disease Control at LSHTM, who led the study, said: ‘These results are really promising and demonstrate the potential for using this technology as a rapid, non-invasive test with incredible accuracy.
‘However, further testing is required to confirm if these results can be replicated in real-world settings.
‘If these devices are successfully developed for use in public places, they could be affordably and easily scaled up.
RoboScientific’s Covid-19 Air Monitor can detect if someone in a room is transmitting the virus
‘They also could protect people against future disease outbreaks, with capability to develop sensor arrays to detect other diseases within a number of weeks.’
The study used body odour samples from socks worn and donated to the team by 54 individuals – 27 Covid-19 positive individuals who were asymptomatic or had mild symptoms and 27 uninfected individuals.
Over a two-day period, the sensors reached accuracy rates of 100 per cent but researchers say more study is needed on a larger scale to determine their effectiveness.
RoboScientific is exploring the potential of two types of device to enable fully-automated Covid-19 screening – a portable handheld device and a room-based device.
The handheld device could detect if a person is Covid-19 positive from their body odour.
If used in public spaces, experts believe these devices could replace PCR and lateral flow testing as a faster, less invasive tool to inform someone whether they are infected and required to self-isolate.
The Roboscientific Handheld Covid Tester can detect the virus from personal samples including a breath sample, a skin swab or a worn face mask and can give results in minutes
They can be used by taking a skin swab, a breath sample or testing a used mask.
The room-based device – the first of its kind – could be used to screen areas such as classrooms or aircraft cabins to detect if an infected individual is in the room.
Scientists say air analysis results would be available within an 30 minutes. If Covid is detected, all those in the room would need to be individually tested to determine who was infected.
It would therefore not be designed to replace PCR or LFT testing, but rather for use alongside these strategies to allow more targeted testing, saving money and time, and reducing onward transmission.
Professor Steve Lindsay, from the Department of Biosciences at Durham University, said: ‘Many diseases have a distinct smell associated with them. We started our research with a blank sheet of paper and asked the question: Does COVID-19 have a distinct smell?
‘We ended the research showing a clear separation between the odours of people infected with the virus and those uninfected. Covid most definitely has a very distinct smell.
‘This is real discovery science and very exciting for the development of screening methods for the disease.’
Stan Curtis, CEO of RoboScientific Ltd., said: ‘Our disease detection platform can provide fast accurate screening for diseases so that we will be ready if and when the next pandemic arrives.’