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Hi-tech dual-sensor to detect COVID-19 and flu in development

"We are optimistic we'll have a prototype by the winter"
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Posted at 8:25 PM, Jul 21, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-21 20:25:36-04

TAMPA, Fla. — Whether we like it or not, flu season is around the corner, and some of the flu and coronavirus symptoms are similar.

Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin are working to develop a hi-tech option to test for both viruses simultaneously.

The best part? Researchers hope someday it will be available to buy over the counter and keep in your medicine cabinet.

"So we are aiming to develop a sensor that will be sensitive to both and either of the common viruses, the COVID-19 and flu. It should be able to precisely tell you which of the viruses you have," Dmitry Kireev said.

Kireev is a postdoctoral fellow in electrical and computer engineering at The University of Texas at Austin, working on the project.

Kireev said the sensor will be the size of a micro USB drive and will be infused with antibodies of both COVID-19 and influenza. One part of the device is sensitive only to the flu, while another part will react only to the coronavirus. The team has not determined how the test would be conducted, but it could be done via saliva samples.

"Building a simple sensor for detecting COVID-19 alone wouldn't be a great advantage for us because there are already several different ways to do so," said Kireev. "The distinction of our work is developing a dual-sensor that can quickly differentiate between both diseases."

Having a home test means that hours of waiting in line to get a COVID-19 test, followed by days of waiting (in some cases seven days or more) for results, will be no more if you buy the test in advance and keep it in your home before you get sick. You won't have to venture out into the public and potentially infect others.

"We are optimistic we'll have a prototype by the winter, but I mean this is not a promise," Kireev said. "We are making sure it is 100% reliable. But, to make a sensor that can detect COVID19 or influenza, we are confident this is doable."

The sensor is truly state-of-the-art. A release by the university said researchers are using what some publications have dubbed a “wonder material” — graphene.

The news release from the university said it's "constructed into electrolyte gated field-effect transistors as the sensing elements. The atomic thickness of graphene creates extreme sensitivity to anything with a charge, including biomolecules such as viruses, making it ideal as a part of a sensor. The work builds on a project the team began last year to create graphene-based biosensors. Along with researchers from Nigeria, the team recently submitted a paper for a biosensor to detect iron (ferritin) deficiency in children. In the work, the team combined graphene with anti-ferritin antibodies, making the biosensors reactive to that one biomolecule."

Kireev said research takes years typically. They are feverishly working on getting this completed in months, then they have to find a manufacturer to scale up production.

"It is a great feeling," Kireev said. "But, a great effort and requirements for ourselves to develop a technology that can be used for society right now to make a device that can perhaps solve a big question and help many people with these uncertain times."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the preliminary estimates for the flu from October 1, 2019, to April 4, 2020, show between 24,000 to 62,000 people died from the flu.