New Air Monitor Can Detect COVID Virus in 5 Minutes

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July 10, 2023 – An air monitor made by researchers at Washington University in St. Louis can detect COVID-19 in a room with an infected person within 5 minutes. 

The project was a collaboration among researchers from the university’s engineering and medical schools. Nature Communications published the results of their work in the journal’s Monday edition.

One of the challenges the team had to overcome is that detecting the virus in a roomful of air “is like finding a needle in a haystack,” researcher and associate engineering professor Rajan Chakrabarty, PhD, said in a statement.

The team overcame that challenge using a technology called wet cyclone that samples the equivalent of 176 cubic feet of air in 5 minutes. A light on the device turns from green to red when the virus is detected, which the researchers said indicates that increased air circulation is needed. 

The device stands just 10 inches tall and 1 foot wide and is considered a proof of concept. The next step would be to implement the technology into a prototype to see how a commercial or household design could be achieved. The researchers foresee potential for the device to be used in hospitals and schools, as well as to be able to detect other respiratory viruses such as influenza and respiratory syncytial virus.

Current methods used for detecting viruses in the air take between 1 and 24 hours to collect and analyze samples. The existing methods usually require skilled labor, resulting in a process that doesn’t allow for real-time information that could translate into reducing risk or the spread of the virus, the researchers wrote.

The team tested their device both in laboratory experiments where they released aerosolized SARS-CoV-2 into a room-sized chamber, as well as in the apartments of two people who were COVID-positive.

“There is nothing at the moment that tells us how safe a room is,” Washington University neurology professor John Cirrito, PhD, in a statement. “If you are in a room with 100 people, you don’t want to find out 5 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.”

Their goal is to develop a commercially available air quality monitor, the researchers said.