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Can Using Multiple Senses Detect Viral Threats Like COVID-19?

Can relying on multiple senses help detect threats? We think so.

Source: Pixabay
Source: Pixabay

This post was co-authored by Silverio Iacono and Kfir Alon.

Imagine trying to identify a certain phenomenon. How might you do so?

We would typically use our five senses, right? What if you had to identify this phenomenon using only one sense? How would you select a dish without tasting or smelling it? How would you choose a neighborhood to live in without hearing if it’s noisy? How would your doctor identify an injury without physically checking you? Today, testing for viruses looks exactly like that.

Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is the main method used today to detect viruses. It is equivalent to using one sense to detect the virus, in this case: smell. Using solely your sense of smell has advantages and disadvantages: on the one hand, our noses are able to detect thousands of different scents, on the other, we can’t really identify what the scent represents unless we know to look for it. PCR is similar in that you must define what it is you’re trying to identify before "sniffing" for it.

Imagine walking into a kitchen where someone is cooking, and the chef asks you to identify what is being cooked. You might find it hard to tell. However, if the chef asks you to identify whether a cake is chocolate or not, you might find that much easier through smell. Certain PCR technologies might have excellent and precise olfactory senses, but without first defining what they’re looking for, these senses remain sub-optimal.

What could be done to present an orthogonal approach? Use another sense.

What if you could enter the same kitchen while looking at and smelling the dishes, you would probably have a much easier time identifying what the chef is cooking. The same can be applied to viral detection, instead of only using PCR, which demands specificity to detect presence or absence of a certain virus, we would add another instrument, which could widen the range of detection, decreasing the need for specificity prior to testing.

One might ask: if using only one sense to detect viruses is not enough, can we actually improve public health efforts by adding another detection method? Currently, PCR tests are quite expensive and time-consuming, they can cost up to $40 a sample and take up to 48 hours to provide results to the patient. Moreover, during the COVID-19 outbreak, approximately 15% of PCR tests in the U.S. come out positive and some reports have stated up to 25% false-negative and 40% false-positive rates. This might lead to losses of life, time, and much-needed resources. What if we could help save these by using another sense? What if the chef asked us to identify if there’s a cake with our sight and whether it’s chocolate with our smell? What if we could identify the presence of a Corona type virus with a cost and time-effective method before trying to detect for the presence of SARS-COV-2?

Well, it turns out, we can:

NanoEngineering (NEC), for instance, is trying to detect the size and mobility of intact viruses to complement the PCR’s measurement of genetic content. NEC is a startup founded based on research conducted at Yale University, it comprises a team of engineers, scientists, and entrepreneurs backed by a research team all dedicated to trying to add sight to smell in the endeavor to detect viruses.

One interesting phenomenon they’ve found is that while genetic material might change and a virus can mutate, its size does not. Basically, if you add cinnamon to the chocolate, you mind think you’re smelling something else, but when looking at it, you would still recognize the same cake. Moreover, it realizes that when solely using the sense of smell, you might still think a cake is present even when it was smashed into crumbs, but when looking at it, you understand there is no longer a cake. Analogously, you might still detect the presence of a virus if its genetic material stays in the host body, even if it breaks apart.

How about the cost-effectiveness of this method?

Well, initial analyses showed the cost per test would be $1 and the test time would be five minutes. Moreover, the team is developing the instrument to be available at point-of-care, thus saving many transportation and queuing challenges.

Maybe, soon, we would be able to use multiple senses to detect viral threats.