UC San Diego developing face mask sensor that detects coronavirus

UCSD is developing a mask-borne sensor that detects the coronavirus.
UC San Diego is developing a mask-borne sensor that detects the coronavirus.
(UC San Diego)

The National Institutes of Health has awarded UC San Diego $1.3 million to develop a small, wearable sensor that can tell whether a person has the coronavirus or has been exposed to it by someone else.

The lightweight sensor would be attached to face masks to monitor for the presence of coronavirus-related molecules that appear in a person’s breath and saliva.

The “surveillance” test strip also would detect virus molecules expelled by someone else and possibly inhaled by the mask wearer.

The user would squeeze the sensor to see whether it turns color, denoting a positive reading. The process is similar to the one used to check results in a home pregnancy test.


If there’s a positive reading, the mask wearer would then get a test to confirm the infection. The result would be available almost immediately. The sensor is also meant to be useful in contact tracing.

“This would be a way of identifying outbreaks early,” said Jesse Jokerst, the UCSD nanoengineering professor leading the project. “We’re repurposing something that people are already wearing to sort of monitor the environment.”

Experts say California’s brutal winter COVID-19 surge is largely driven by complacency on masking and distancing. One calls it ‘COVID resentment.’

Jan. 22, 2021

The test strip, which could be ready for use later this year, is a variation on measures that UCSD is already taking to detect and stop the spread of the coronavirus.

In the fall, the university began placing sensors in its wastewater system to monitor for the presence of the virus in sewage coming out of specific buildings. When there’s a positive reading, UCSD alerts people who might have been using the buildings at specific times and asks them to get a COVID-19 test.

The early-warning system is the largest of its kind at an American university and is likely to be in use for quite a while. Although UCSD has taken many steps to slow the spread of the virus, the campus has experienced a surge in infections since the winter quarter began Jan. 4. The school says 311 students have tested positive for the virus since then. More than 40% of the students who tested positive live on campus. UCSD also reports that 88 of its employees have tested positive since the start of the new quarter.

Robbins writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.