16-05-2023 | By Robin Mitchell
Recently, researchers have been developing a virus detector that could work alongside other safety systems, such as smoke and flame detectors. What challenges does pandemic control present, what have the researchers developed, and how could it be used to help control future pandemics?
What challenges does pandemic control present?
Controlling the spread of a pandemic presents a unique set of challenges, despite the numerous techniques available that can easily be deployed amongst populations. One such technique is mandatory facemasks that can help to reduce the spread of aerosol-based viruses, but such masks are only effective when used properly. Another technique can require the use of alcohol handwash whenever entering new rooms or meeting people so that viruses present on the skin can be destroyed and prevented from spreading. Finally, if a virus spread needs to be curbed quickly, lockdowns of populations can prevent the transmission of viruses.
Despite their efficacy, the techniques employed during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 underscored that the world faces significant challenges in preparing for future pandemics, particularly in terms of economic impact. While lockdowns may be able to help curb the spread of a virus, they are extremely damaging to the economy, which modern life relies upon. A damaged economy not only results in suffering for the vast majority of the population but also makes it harder to fund government institutions such as the NHS, which are responsible for treating those suffering due to a pandemic.
The economic impact of a pandemic extends beyond immediate business closures and job losses. It also involves long-term consequences like increased national debt, reduced investor confidence, and the potential for a recession. Furthermore, the tourism and hospitality sectors are disproportionately affected, leading to uneven economic impacts across different sectors.
The economic implications, however, are only one aspect of the issue. Another facet of pandemic control – enforcing facemask rules – also presents a host of problems, as facemask wearers rarely use them correctly. When in use, facemasks must not be touched with hands as aerosol-based virus concentrations will be extremely high on the mask, and yet, most people mess around with masks almost every second of wearing them.
The societal impacts of a pandemic and its control measures are profound. Extended periods of isolation and social distancing can lead to increased rates of mental health issues, including depression and anxiety. The closure of educational institutions disrupts students' learning and can exacerbate educational inequality. Moreover, the fear and uncertainty associated with a pandemic can lead to increased stigmatisation and discrimination of certain groups.
The examination of these control measures reveals a glaring gap in our pandemic response strategy: the ability to track the location of viruses, identify who is infected, and ascertain high-risk areas. Without having the ability to detect virus particles in the air, it is practically impossible to screen individuals for infection in real time, which is why indirect methods of control are needed. If a sensor could be designed that can detect virus particles in real-time, it would be possible to not only screen individuals but even monitor the condition of a room that could deploy extremely localised lockdowns, thereby allowing the rest of society to function.
Pandemic control measures, while essential, can also have unintended health consequences. For instance, health services for non-COVID conditions might be disrupted, leading to delayed diagnoses and treatments. This could result in a long-term increase in morbidity and mortality from other diseases. Additionally, the mental health impact of lockdowns and prolonged social isolation can be significant.
Researchers developing virus detectors
In response to this gap, researchers from the UIC Nanotechnology Core Facility have embarked on a promising venture - the development of prototype detectors that are able to detect individual virus particles in samples of air. The idea behind the detectors is to be able to install them in a similar fashion to smoke detectors that can identify traces of virus particles and then generate an alarm to warn those in the immediate area of possible infection.
Two University of Illinois Chicago scientists, Michael Caffrey and Igor Paprotny, have collaborated on a device that could detect SARS-CoV-2, influenza, RSV, and other pathogens. The technology, known as BioAerium, could dramatically improve disease surveillance for public health as well as research on how viral particles move through the air. This invention has earned Caffrey and Paprotny the 2022 Inventor of the Year award from UIC, and their work forms the basis of a new startup company, also called BioAerium, which is exploring commercial opportunities for the technology.
While COVID-19 accelerated the urgency of Caffrey and Paprotny’s project, their collaboration actually formed before the pandemic, with the flu virus as their initial target. They combined their expertise to tackle the challenge of detecting small quantities of viral bioaerosols — aerosols that contain viruses. Existing devices for detecting airborne viruses are often bulky and expensive, making them impractical for widespread use.
While the current BioAerium prototype is designed to detect one virus at a time, its potential applications extend far beyond. Imagine, for instance, a detector set up to scan for SARS-CoV-2, silently monitoring the air in classrooms or airplanes. But Caffrey and Paprotny designed the device as an open, customisable platform and envision a future “multiplex” version that can detect many viruses at once, or even distinguish between variants of a virus.
Additionally, it is hoped that the detectors can be small and cheap enough to be deployed en-masse outside of the lab. Thus, it is possible that these sensors could eventually end up at hardware stores in the same aisle as smoke and fire detectors. Finally, having these sensors connected to a cloud service could help disease control experts identify where infections are occurring and rapidly identify areas of particular risk.
According to Caffrey, such devices could be connected to the Internet of Things, enabling big data science to analyse the signals from multiple areas and provide a global picture useful from a public health perspective. The small size and low cost of the device could also enable new scientific studies, such as how a virus spreads through the air and detecting emerging variants in real-time, instead of waiting for infections and patient tests. BioAerium's role in airborne virus detection is poised to be a game-changer in disease surveillance.
How could such devices help future pandemic control?
Envisioning the future of pandemic control, one of the most substantial advantages of such a system becomes clear: the potential to eliminate blanket rules and regulations that burden entire societies. While the lockdowns during COVID may have helped to limit the spread, the impact it has had on the economy will last for years, and this will undoubtedly result in additional deaths through lack of government funding, medical care, and personal decisions affecting mental and physical health.
BioAerium, the invention of Michael Caffrey and Igor Paprotny, is envisioned to be a game-changer in disease surveillance. Its potential extends beyond individual viral detection - the scientists designed the device as a highly flexible, customisable platform. They foresee a future 'multiplex' version that can detect many viruses at once, or even distinguish between variants of a virus.
'COVID is maybe going away, but we’re looking at this project as preparing for the next pandemic, and for diseases like the flu where it will be beneficial to be able to detect the presence of a virus,' Paprotny said. 'We may even be able to tell whether we are detecting a flu variant that people are vaccinated against or a different strain. Making those distinctions can be especially important.
Nitin Jayakumar (on the left) and Igor Paprotny are engaged in the development of their airborne virus particle detection device prototype. (Photo credit goes to Paprotny Lab/UIC.)
However, it may also turn out that using such sensors is an easier method for controlling disease than using PRC and antigen tests. So long as a researcher can identify a virus particle and sequence its RNA, creating electronic sensors able to bind to the protein structure could be faster than developing expensive chemical tests. Furthermore, it may be easier to develop individual electronic testers that can sniff virus particles in breath, similar to breathalysers.
What the researchers are working on is truly exciting, and if it works, it could provide the world with the tools it needs to eliminate future pandemics while minimising the impact on society.
With the potential to install multiple detectors in a building, across a campus, or throughout a neighborhood, researchers could study in unprecedented detail how a virus spreads through the air and detect emerging variants in real-time, instead of waiting for infections and patient tests. Caffrey and Paprotny's groundbreaking work may just be the key to outsmarting future pandemics and minimising the societal and economic impacts we've so recently experienced.
Caffrey and Paprotny are currently working with the Office of Technology Management on commercialising their detector technology and have filed for patents. Their work in the field of viral particle detection and airborne pathogen tracking was recognised when they received their Inventor of the Year award in a ceremony at the Field Museum of Natural History on April 12th, 2023. For more information, you can visit the BioAerium website.