A group of Chinese scientists have developed a face mask that can detect viral exposure from a 10-minute conversation with an infected person.

Respiratory pathogens that cause COVID-19 and influenza spread through small droplets and aerosols released by infected people when they talk, cough, and sneeze.

The wearable bioelectronic mask designed by the researchers from Tongjin University can detect common respiratory viruses, including influenza and the coronavirus, in the air in droplets or aerosols, and then alert the wearers via their mobile devices.

The highly sensitive face mask is capable of measuring trace-level liquid samples of 0.3 microliters and gaseous samples at an ultra-low concentration of 0.1 femtograms per milliliter, according to the study published this week in the journal, Matter.

The detection benchmark for liquid containing viral proteins in an enclosed chamber is "about 70 to 560 times less than the volume of liquid produced in one sneeze and much less than the volume produced by coughing or talking," said the paper's corresponding author Fang Yin, a professor at Tongji.

Fang's team designed a small sensor carrying three types of synthetic molecules that can simultaneously recognize surface proteins on SARS-CoV-2, H5N1, and H1N1.

Once those molecules click onto the target proteins, an ion-gated transistor integrated into the mask will amplify the signal and alert the wearers, according to the study.

The designers said they can easily update the wearable device to detect novel respiratory viruses.

Editor: Tan Yuhan