New approach to coronavirus testing could curb spread of virus

A new approach to testing for coronavirus (COVID19) is to be trialled by researchers here at the University of Leicester, which could determine whether a person is infectious or not – even before symptoms are present. If successful, the approach could greatly simplify large scale screening for the virus and curb the spread of the disease.

Researchers will use simple, low cost face masks which are adapted using 3D printed strips that can trap exhaled microbes whilst the mask is worn for 30 minutes.

Using the adapted mask to screen for coronavirus could allow very large groups to be checked at once, potentially helping to curb the spread of the virus and avoiding long stays in quarantine.

Mike Barer, Professor of Clinical Microbiology in our Department of Respiratory Sciences, said: “Coronavirus is spread from the mouth, throat and respiration system of infected individuals. This new approach is exciting because it could help us determine whether a person is infectious or not, even before symptoms of the virus have appeared.

“Measuring how much of the virus is breathed out by using the mask sampling approach will allow us to compare levels of the virus exhaled by different individuals, and could help us focus control efforts on preventing spread. The mask can easily be processed in any standard virus diagnostic laboratory. Successful development of this approach could be transformative.”

The pilot work is being funded by an urgency grant through the University’s QR Global Challenges Research Fund allocation (Research England), as part of the global drive to manage the coronavirus outbreak. The adapted mask has previously been successfully used to screen patients for tuberculosis and this research was recently featured in The Lancet Infectious Diseases.

The trials will be conducted at the University of Leicester in partnership with the NHS and international partners, including a partnership in South Africa to use the mask technology to test for influenza.

Researchers will first target patients with other respiratory virus infections and compare mask with throat swab results, then if successful, move on to trials with COVID-19 infections. It will be a minimum of 2-3 months before researchers can sample possible COVID-19 patients because they need to fully validate the new approach first.

The materials for each mask currently cost around £2 as the inserts are individually 3D printed at the University of Leicester, but if manufactured on an industrial scale the sampling masks would cost just pennies.

Professor Barer’s team is currently in the process of bidding for Government funding to develop this work further.