According to an article published on BioSpace on 18 August, it was revealed that SARS-CoV-2-specific diagnostic face masks, developed in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, will soon be available on the market. The masks were developed by researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University, and offer a unique alternative to conventional facial coverings.

The diagnostic masks do not require a power source but work by monitoring for the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus via the wearer’s exhalation using small, freeze-dried cell-free sensors embedded within the mask. The sensors are activated by a button on the outside of the mask that releases water, which rehydrates the cell’s molecular machinery. The machinery can then extract, amplify and detect viral DNA.

Once detected, synthetic genetic circuits create fluorescent signals that result in a colour change on a strip inside the mask. One strip darkens to indicate a positive result, while a second strip also darkens to indicate a negative result. According to Peter Nguyen, a research scientist at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute, the masks’ diagnostic capability offers accuracy similar to that of highly sensitive polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests and speed equivalent to that of antigen tests.

These masks come at a time when the ‘Delta’ variant of the virus has shown overwhelming dominance within the UK, accounting for 99% of recent cases. As of 24 August, the UK had the highest number of Delta variant cases, with 127,633 cases. The second highest number was in the US, with 75,525 cases, according to the Covid-19 Dashboard on GlobalData’s Pharma Intelligence Centre. This was followed by India, Turkey and Denmark to round out the top five countries. As such, this new diagnostic mask may offer an alternative, or possibly enhanced, method to detect and respond to new Covid-19 cases.

The UK lifted its final restrictions that had been imposed due to Covid-19 on 19 July. This meant there were no longer any restrictions on the number of people who could meet or attend events, and restaurants and nightclubs were allowed to reopen. More pertinently, face coverings were no longer required by law. As a result, there has been a surge in case numbers since restrictions were lifted, with 1,467 people hospitalised, 34.9% of whom were fully vaccinated. The data strongly suggest that fully vaccinated people are still at risk, raising concerns that complacency during this pivotal time could further exacerbate case numbers and increase hospitalisation rates.

To prevent this, requiring masks to be worn in high-transmission settings could create a large positive impact. Many indoor and outdoor UK recreational sites, importantly, require proof of vaccination or a negative lateral flow test, and could therefore benefit from the diagnostic masks, which facilitate this via their dual functionality. In addition, the diagnostic technology can be adjusted to detect and test for new variants, giving it the adaptability necessary to handle the pandemic in the long term.