By CBSBoston.com Staff

CAMBRIDGE (CBS) — Face masks have been an important part of keeping people safe during the pandemic – but what if they could do even more? MIT and Harvard University engineers say they’ve designed a new kind of mask that can actually detect COVID and other viruses.

Small disposable sensors can diagnose the wearer of the mask within 90 minutes, the researchers said. The technology has been used before to detect Ebola and Zika, but now researchers are embedding it into face masks and lab coats as a new method to safeguard health care workers.

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“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,” MIT medical engineering professor and senior study author James Collins said in a statement. “We envision that this platform could enable next-generation wearable biosensors for first responders, health care personnel, and military personnel.”

The face mask that can detect COVID infection (Photo credit: Felice Frankel and MIT News Office)

The face mask has a small amount of water that the wearer pushes a button to release for the test. The freeze-dried sensors are then hydrated and able to analyze breath droplets inside to test for COVID.

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“This test is as sensitive as the gold standard, highly sensitive PCR tests, but it’s as fast as the antigen tests that are used for quick analysis of Covid-19,” Harvard research scientist Peter Nguyen said.

Only the wearer will be able to see the results of the COVID test, as they are displayed on the inside of the mask to ensure privacy.

Engineers are working to patent the technology and want to partner with a company to make the face masks. They say there is already “a lot of interest” from outside groups.

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CBSBoston.com Staff