These smart face masks can tell you whether you have COVID-19

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Kayleigh Bateman, Senior Writer, Formative Content


  • Masks are a tool in the fight against the pandemic and now scientists are exploring ways to make them more effective.
  • Ostrich antibodies applied to material can be used to detect COVID-19.
  • Silver nanoparticles are being used to turn masks into more active barriers.
  • Sensors in some masks can diagnose the wearer with COVID-19 within 90 minutes.

The humble face mask has come to symbolize the struggles of recent years and the complexities of battling the pandemic.

Disposable 3-ply, cloth, surgical or respirator – no matter what type of face mask you choose, scientific evidence suggests that face coverings reduce the transmission of COVID-19.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.How can we collaborate to stop the spread of COVID-19?

Since its launch on 11 March, the Forum’s COVID Action Platform has brought together 1,667 stakeholders from 1,106 businesses and organizations to mitigate the risk and impact of the unprecedented global health emergency that is COVID-19.

The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

“All types of face coverings are, to some extent, effective in reducing transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in both healthcare and public, community settings,” says Public Health England (PHE). “This is through a combination of source control and protection to the wearer.”

How often have you worn a face mask outside your home to protect yourself or others from coronavirus (COVID-19)?
Significant differences still exist between European countries when wearing a face mask outside. Image: Statista

Even so, different countries have different legislation on and attitudes toward face masks. By early 2021, 96% of people in Spain said they always wore a face mask outside, while hardly any in the Nordics wore a face mask at all, according to a survey from YouGov.

Since masks are a critical tool to stop the spread of COVID-19, scientists are using technological advancements to make them even more effective at reducing transmission.

Ostrich antibodies

Researchers in Japan are using ostrich antibodies to detect COVID-19 under ultraviolet light, something they say will help pick up asymptomatic cases.

Yasuhiro Tsukamoto and his team at Kyoto Prefectural University decided to design the mask based on previous research that revealed ostriches have a strong resistance to COVID-19.

The mask’s filter is coated with ostrich antibodies. Test subjects wore the masks for eight hours before spraying the filters with a chemical that glows under ultraviolet light if the virus is present. The team is currently working on face masks that will glow automatically.

Microfluidics on nanomaterials

Scientists in the UK are using nanomaterials to create a face mask designed to stop the spread of COVID-19.

The team at the University of Aberdeen is using a technology called microfluidics, which would harness silver nanoparticles to turn masks into active barriers and increase their efficiency.

Freeze-dried cellular machinery

In another attempt to bolster what masks can do, engineers at MIT and Harvard University are embedding small, disposable sensors to detect COVID-19.

The face mask aims to diagnose the wearer with COVID-19 within 90 minutes, based on freeze-dried cellular machinery that the team has previously used for paper diagnostics of Ebola and Zika. The results are displayed on the inside of the mask for user privacy. In a new study, the researchers incorporated the sensors, not just into face masks, but also lab coats.

“We’ve demonstrated that we can freeze-dry a broad range of synthetic biology sensors to detect viral or bacterial nucleic acids, as well as toxic chemicals, including nerve toxins,” says James Collins, the Termeer Professor of Medical Engineering and Science in MIT’s Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES) and Department of Biological Engineering.

“We envision that this platform could enable next-generation wearable biosensors for first responders, health care personnel, and military personnel.”

With mask wearing remaining part of the strategy in many countries around the world, it seems there’s scope for technology to improve their effectiveness and efficiency.

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