Swiss researchers develop methods to sniff out coronavirus in the air

In recent months, people across many different fields have tried to take what they know and pivot it toward the challenges posed by the COVID-19 outbreak: some that you may expect—such as diagnostics, healthcare and tech companies, of course—and some you may not.

Switzerland’s national institute for applied materials sciences—known under the German acronym EMPA—typically works in energy, natural resources, pollution and environmental research as well as in nanotechnology and biomaterials for medical implants and other devices.

Now, along with research university ETH Zurich, one team is working on a sensor that can detect the novel coronavirus as it floats through the air.

The device would operate similarly to previous projects and research ideas, including industrial sensors for pollutants and occupational exposures and detectors for airborne viruses and bacteria.

This wouldn’t replace laboratory tests or diagnostics for patients, but it could potentially be used to monitor airborne concentrations in high-traffic areas such hospitals or public transit stations, according to the researchers.

Using a technology called localized surface plasmon resonance, the device contains molecular binding sites designed for the coronavirus’s unique RNA sequence, mounted on nanostructures made of gold. 

When the virus’s genetic material lines up and attaches, the nanostructures begin to modulate the light around them, which can be read using an optical sensor. The device also contains a second detection method that fires a laser at the nanostructures and confirms the presence of the virus by changes in the amount of heat produced.

To demonstrate its accuracy and proof of concept, the researchers tested their device against the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, as well as its predecessor: the strain behind the SARS outbreak of the early 2000s, which contains slightly different RNA.

The sensor was able to distinguish between the two, but more development work needs to be done to create a system capable of monitoring a wide area for the pathogen. This includes building a system for drawing in air, concentrating its aerosols and releasing the RNA from the virus, according to researchers.