26-04-2021 | By Robin Mitchell
The Pentagon (US) has recently developed an implantable chip that can detect early signs of COVID and alert users to get tested. What features have been released on the chip, what challenges do implantable devices face, and could such technology help with other diseases?
Recently, a team of researchers working for DARPA have announced the development of an implantable chip that can detect signs of COVID within minutes of application. The device is implanted under the skin like most typical implantable devices, and can continuously test blood for traces of the COVID pathogen.
According to the researchers, the device reacts with specific chemical markers found in the virus. When detected, it informs the user to perform a COVID test (it is important to note that the device does not specifically confirm COVID, but evidence of COVID). Furthermore, the researchers made it clear that the device does not provide tracking capabilities, but did not mention how the device communicates with the outside world (this would most likely be RFID).
The main driving force behind the development of the chip came after COVID spread throughout the USS Roosevelt aircraft carrier. While only one individual died due to the virus, the approximate 25% of those who got the virus showed symptoms, which can put key military assets at risk. Therefore, detecting the virus early would allow military assets to react better to pandemics and minimise downtime.
Implantable devices have a real potential to transform everyday life, but the challenges they face come two-fold; technical and moral.
Devices that are to be implanted into living tissue must firstly be biologically inert. This means that the outer material used by the device must not cause a reaction from living tissue (such as an immune response). If such a reaction does occur, the resulting pus formation can cause complications including additional infections and blood poisoning.
The second requirement for implanting devices into living tissue is that they must be sterilised otherwise dangerous pathogens on the device could result in infections. For example, MRSA is an extremely dangerous infection that is resistant to most antibiotics, and yet it is widely present on everyday objects. However, MRSA cannot be ingested, nor can it easily get into the human body and as such presents little risk to everyday life. If an implanted device is not sterilised, such contagions can be introduced into the human body.
Implantable devices also provide concern with privacy and ethics. While the use of such devices can theoretically help reduce disease and provide convenience, there is also the possibility of tracking individuals, data theft, and limitations on freedom. Such devices usually require RFID or other wireless communications, and as such this allows anyone in the local area to read the device, or at least see its existence.
Thus, it would not be complicated to install RFID readers at various locations including shops and restaurants, and then track and store unique IDs from each implanted device. Over time, the unique IDs can be linked to personal information such as name and address, and thus the embedded device allows for remote identification without the need for permission.
While large amounts of research goes towards using implanted devices for tracking and identification, the ability to detect diseases early on presents a potential breakthrough for the field of diagnosis. Of all medical tests that can be done, blood tests are usually one of the best as most conditions show up in blood work (whether it be pathogens, cancer, vitamin deficiencies, or poison).
The device developed by DARPA is just the first stepping stone; the ability to detect signs of COVID. If extended, regular individuals could also use those same chips to look for signs of any disease before they become temperament or lethal. Furthermore, the use of such devices could also help control the next pandemic or outbreak without the need for lockdowns or travel restrictions. In fact, the next pandemic may be more concerned with trying to find chemical patterns in the virus instead of developing a vaccine so that such devices can be quickly reprogrammed.