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Washington University Scientists Develop 5 Minute Covid Detector

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Clockwise from front left: Cirrito, Chakrabarty, Puthussery and Yuede stand alongside the SARS-CoV-2 wet cyclone aerosol sampler they developed. (Photo: Shubham Sharma Washington University)

A new air monitor can detect COVID-19 virus variants in about 5 minutes. So say its inventors, scientists from Washington University in St. Louis.

Yes the Covid crisis has passed – at least we hope so. But after what we all just went through surely no one wants to see it happen again. And it is not a question of if another such global pandemic will occur, but when.

Fortunately, the fast pace at which new Covid testing equipment was developed meant that the shutdowns could be ended. And the devices can be altered for other types of virus. The one good thing that came out of the Covid crisis was the fact that the technology for such things progressed and so hopefully, in the future, quick testing equipment for another virus will be made available even faster, as well as a vaccine.

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Washington University researchers said that by combining recent advances in aerosol sampling technology and an ultrasensitive biosensing technique, they were able to create a real-time monitor that can detect any of the SARS-CoV-2 virus variants in a room in about 5 minutes.

“The inexpensive, proof-of-concept device could be used in hospitals and health care facilities, schools and public places to help detect CoV-2 and potentially monitor for other respiratory virus aerosols, such as influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV),” said the university.

The research study about the device from study co-authors Joseph Puthussery and Rajan Chakrabarty the Harold D. Jolley Career Development Associate Professor of energy, environmental & chemical engineering in McKelvey Engineering, was published July 10 in Nature Communications.

“The challenge with airborne aerosol detectors is that the level of virus in the indoor air is so diluted that it even pushes toward the limit of detection of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and is like finding a needle in a haystack,” Chakrabarty said. “The high virus recovery by the wet cyclone can be attributed to its extremely high flow rate, which allows it to sample a larger volume of air over a 5-minute sample collection compared with commercially available samplers.”

John Cirrito, a professor of neurology at the School of Medicine and Carla Yuede, an associate professor of psychiatry at the School of Medicine, were also involved.

“There is nothing at the moment that tells us how safe a room is,” Cirrito said. “If you are in a room with 100 people, you don’t want to find out five days later whether you could be sick or not. The idea with this device is that you can know essentially in real time, or every 5 minutes, if there is a live virus in the air.”

“The nanobody-based electrochemical approach is faster at detecting the virus because it doesn’t need a reagent or a lot of processing steps,” Yuede said. “SARS-CoV-2 binds to the nanobodies on the surface, and we can induce oxidation of tyrosines on the surface of the virus using a technique called square wave voltammetry to get a measurement of the amount of virus in the sample.”

To convert the biosensor from detecting amyloid beta to coronavirus, the researchers exchanged the antibody that recognizes amyloid beta for a nanobody from llamas that recognizes the spike protein from the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

In laboratory experiments that aerosolized SARS-CoV-2 into a room-sized chamber, the wet cyclone and biosensor were able to detect varying levels of airborne virus concentrations after only a few minutes of sampling.

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