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The Air Force has a bomb detector that can sniff out life-threatening coronavirus cases

  • Early detection of severe coronavirus symptoms could help doctors better prepare therapies for patients at risk of developing respiratory complications.
  • The Air Force Research Laboratory has been working on repurposing a device for COVID-19, a chemical sensing device that can detect bombs and other dangerous substances by analyzing the air in a room.
  • This breathalyzer-like device might be able to deliver early alerts for life-threatening complications like ARDS that is often associated with COVID-19 deaths.

One of the problems with the novel coronavirus is that some people will experience a more severe case of the disease, especially the elderly and people suffering from other medical conditions. This typically involves respiratory issues that may require oxygen therapy including invasive ventilation, and can often lead to death. Incidentally, that’s why coronavirus testing is so important. The earlier you diagnose COVID-19, the faster you can begin treating it.

Doctors studying the COVID-19 pathology have already found ways to reduce the risk of complications. They are testing methods that could offer ways to predict which patients might be prone to developing severe respiratory issues. Physicians in the UK are testing a T-cell program that can help them predict severe cases and provide effective treatment. Separately, researchers from the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) think they can repurpose a tool made for bomb detection to identify chemical substances indicative of severe COVID-19 complications.

Air Force researchers have designed a small gas chromatograph (micro-GC) that can detect explosives and chemical weapons remotely. The tool can be repurposed for industrial toxin, pollutant, and narcotics detection, a report published in Medical Express indicates. The system would also find other substances, including nuclear materials, in the presence of “significant background and interferents.” In other words, the system analyzes the contents of air and looks for specific chemicals.

The system was built under the molecular analyzer for efficient gas-phase low-power interrogation (MAEGLIN) program from the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA).

Researchers think the same tool can be used to analyze air that COVID-19 patients breathe and attempt to detect acute respiratory disease syndrome (ARDS), the respiratory complication that’s associated with many COVID-19 deaths. Symptoms alone are not enough to predict whether a patient with a moderate COVID-19 case might worsen. The University of Michigan partnered with AFRL and IARPA for a MAEGLIN micro-GC breathalyzer device that would look for ARDS identifiers.

Air Force Research Laboratory

This schematic illustration shows how a disease is identified by the pattern of compounds detected in exhaled breath. Gas chromatography is an analytical technique that separates the chemical constituents of an air sample into components, with the retention time (the amount of time it takes for a given compound to pass through the chromatography column) being an identifying characteristic of each compound.

“The goal of the MAEGLIN program was not to develop a medical device, but a means for autonomous environmental gas monitoring,” AFRL researcher Dr. Robert Bedford said. “However, the technology showed promise for medical applications, and we saw an opportunity to use it for urgent needs during the global pandemic.”

The breathalyzer would look for the chemical signature of ARDS and could offer an early warning about a negative prognostic of the disease.

The MAEGLIN device was modified in less than a week, and four prototypes of the redesigned device were developed. The university started using the gadget in non-military ICUs with COVID-19 ARDS patients and healthy adults in a control group.

It’s too early for results, but the approach is promising. If researchers can come up with a non-invasive way to analyze gas data from patients and predict the severity of COVID-19 cases, doctors would have more time to prepare a course of treatment that might avoid the severe respiratory distress.

Separately, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) funded testing of a suitcase-sized gas chromatograph for the same purpose. The trial included 20 non-COVID ARDS patients, as ARDS is a phenomenon that can appear in other medical conditions. The MAEGLIN effort is supposed to be more accurate, as it uses machine learning algorithms to deliver results.


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