UCSD Developing Face Masks which can Detect the Coronavirus


Kristina Stahl / The Triton

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UC San Diego is developing a face mask with a sensor attached that can detect the novel coronavirus. The mask will consist of a test strip which will change colors when it detects COVID-19 in a user’s breath or saliva. It may potentially  detect virus molecules inhaled by the face mask user from another person.

The idea came about after the National Institutes of Health awarded UC San Diego $1.3 million to create a surveillance tool that would be used to detect COVID-19 infections. Despite the potential benefit of tracking the virus’ spread, some experts argue that this money would go further in saving lives and preventing covid cases if it went towards improving healthcare access.

Jesse Jokerst, a professor of nanoengineering at UCSD, is the leader of the project.

“What [should] do surveillance? Something that is present everywhere. What is present everywhere right now? Face masks,” Jokerst said in a statement to The Triton

The team, made up of faculty and students, is currently developing test strips that can be put on any mask, ranging from N95, surgical, or cloth. They will be designed to detect the presence of protein-cleaving molecules, called proteases, that are produced from the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

“The proteases we’re detecting here are the same ones present in infections with the original SARS virus from 2003 and the MERS virus. We could still benefit from this shall future coronavirus infections emerge,” Jokerst said in a UCSD news article announcing the development of the face mask sensors.

He says, “We’re hoping to be able to be testing this in saliva samples in late February-early March. Then, we would be testing it on positive people in April. We would push it for May and June for broader distribution.” 

Jokerst admits that campus is a low risk place and these types of sensors would not be as useful as in other high-risk places. 

“Where you want to do surveillance is places where there’s a really high potential of doing a super-spreader event. Think, group care homes, shelters, prisons,” Jokerst says. 

Seeing as it is likely that many places won’t have vaccine access until 2023, Jokerst says that these will be a useful tool despite vaccine rollout.

Lily Irani, an associate professor for the Communication and Science Department, believes the school should be investing in easy accessibility to health care as much as new technology projects.

“What happens if someone gets a positive result and has no transportation or health insurance to access a health care provider or support line?” Irani said in a statement to The Triton.

Kate Metcalf, a PhD student in the Communications and Science studies, expressed similar  concerns regarding healthcare accessibility.

“Projects that focus on improving pay for low-income workers, improving access to sick leave and job protections, childcare, and reducing financial and practical burdens to accessing healthcare are crucial in reducing outbreaks. These types of projects will help ensure that sick people aren’t forced to choose between the risk of transmission and the necessity of a paycheck after they test positive,” said Metcalf in a comment to The Triton.

Furthermore, some theorists believe the development and normalization of new surveillance tools during the pandemic will lead to increased government and corporate surveillance in the future. Journalist Sanja Varghese writes that the pandemic has created “a host of technological solutions bidding to become routinized biometric enforcement mechanisms” which will later “become assimilated to extracting profit from marginalized groups” and later in the school and office setting.

Face mask sensors are not the only surveillance systems that UCSD has developed during the pandemic. Last fall, the university placed sensors in its wastewater system to monitor for COVID-19 virus shedding in the sewage coming out of buildings. When a sampler in a  building reads a positive infection, the school sends out an email to students and staff who might have used the restroom in that building at a specific time. Then, students and staff are required to go get tested.

There are currently 70 active samplers that detect the flow of wastewater at around 200 buildings on campus, according to an email sent by the Office of the Vice Chancellor on January 15. A wastewater monitoring tool has also been added to the Return to Learn Dashboard — it identifies which buildings are being monitored and if they are a potential source for a positive wastewater signal.

The University is in the process of expanding wastewater detection to the entire campus and hopes to reach 200 sampler locations by the end of winter quarter.

UC San Diego has been able to expand their wastewater monitoring system to 12 San Diego County schools. Ten K-8th grade schools and two child care centers have been using this early detection program, also known as Safer at School Early Alert system. The schools were in communities that are predominantly lower-income and immigrant families with a high-risk for COVID-19, so this helped give them easier access to testing.

“Wastewater monitoring is another great example of surveillance. It’s not necessarily saying this person is positive. It’s saying, ‘if you were in this building from 9-5 on this day, then you may be positive’,” Jokerst said.

UCSD has managed to have a 98% increase in testing in winter quarter compared to fall, with a case positivity rate of 0.2% compared to the county’s 5% average. As of March 1, it is projected that the campus will have processed 200,000 student tests.

Vanessa Gaeta is a staff writer for The Triton. You can follow her @_vnsgg.