New ‘Covid Alarms’ Could Sniff Out Infected People in Crowded Places

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Electronic devices may be soon be used to detect the presence of covid infection in crowded places using body odour. Researchers in the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and the biotech company RoboScientific Ltd with Durham University tested a ‘covid alarm’ fitted with organic semiconducting sensors (OSC) to detect coronavirus. 

Early study shows covid-19 infection has a distinct smell resulting from changes in the body  odour, made up of volatile organic compounds (VOC). The sensors use this smell as an odour ‘fingerprint’ to compare against other odours and detect infection. 

“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,” said Professor James Logan, Head of the Department of Disease Control at LSHTM, who led the study.

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“If these devices are successfully developed for use in public places, they could be affordably and easily scaled up. They also could protect people against future disease outbreaks, with the capability to develop sensor arrays to detect other diseases within a number of weeks,” he said.

How it works?

The gadget works by sucking the VOCs responsible for creating odours. The VOCs pass through a sensor block, where it gets analysed and compared against the digital odour fingerprint. The sensor responds to Covid-19 infection. 

The study has used body odour samples of 57 people, out of which 27 of them were either asymptomatic or had mild symptoms of covid infection. The company’s VOC analyser Model 307B fitted with array of 12 OSC sensors analysed the samples. The OSC sensors tuned to be sensitive to the VOCs (ketone and aldehyde) of covid virus captures the odour profile of the samples. The sensors were able to distinguish infected samples. The first day of testing had achieved an average 98 per cent specificity (meaning a low risk of false positive results) and an average of 99% sensitivity (meaning a low risk of false negative results). On the second day of testing the sensors achieved 100 percent sensitivity and specificity, suggesting they can detect the presence of COVID-19 infection more accurately than any other diagnostic test available.

Portable device

The Cambridgeshire based start-up, RoboScientific, is exploring the potential of two types of device underpinned by these findings to enable fully-automated COVID-19 screening – a portable handheld device and a room-based device. 

A covid-19 ‘air monitor’ will tell you if someone in the room is transmitting covid infection. The handheld device could detect if a person is covid positive from their body odour. If deployed in public spaces, these devices could be used in place of PCR and LFT testing as a faster, less invasive diagnostic to inform an individual whether they are infected and required to self-isolate. They can be used with a separate air sampler or individual breath or mask samples.

Stan Curtis, CEO of RoboScientific Ltd., said, “Our experience in consumer electronics, coupled with five years developing our unique sensors for agricultural applications, has enabled us to create a new way of sensing VOCs.”

The device could screen areas such as classrooms or aircraft cabins to detect if an infected individual is in the room, with air analysis results within an estimated 30 minutes. These devices were developed by adapting technology previously used in chicken houses to detect disease in flocks of up to 50,000 chickens, using well proven sampling methods and analysis.

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