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Durham University

Durham University News

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Introducing the handheld sensors that can ‘smell’ Covid-19

(13 June 2021)

Research involving Durham has found that electronic sensors can detect the distinct odour of Covid-19 with almost 100 per cent accuracy.

The electronic devices could potentially be used in public spaces as a screening tool to identify people carrying the virus.

Odour fingerprint

The small-scale study, which is not yet peer-reviewed, shows that Covid-19 infection has a distinct smell, due to changes in the volatile organic compounds (VOC) which make up the body odour – generating a so-called odour ‘fingerprint’ that the sensors can detect.

The research team, made up of scientists from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), biotech company RoboScientific Ltd. and Durham University, tested devices with organic semi-conducting (OSC) sensors. They used body odour samples from socks worn by infected and uninfected people.

Electronic devices

Based on the findings, two types of devices are being explored for development - a portable handheld device and a room-based device.

The handheld device could detect if a person is Covid-positive from their body odour and could be used in public spaces instead of the now widely available PCR and LFT testing as a faster, less invasive method to identify people with the virus.

The room-based device – the first of its kind – could screen areas such as classrooms or aircraft cabins to detect if an infected individual is present. If it picks up the Covid-19 odour, everyone in the room or cabin would need to be individually tested to determine who was infected as the device only picks up the presence of infection, not who it is. This method would need to be used alongside PCR or LFT testing.

The next step is to further refine the sensors with larger sample sizes and directly with people in real-world settings to ensure they are as effective and accurate as they were in the initial tests.

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