A decade ago, when firefighter John Burke earned his master’s degree in health care emergency management, he wrote his thesis on pandemic planning. So when the coronavirus hit last spring, Burke, now the fire chief in Sandwich, Massachusetts, was ready.
“I had my playbook ready to go,” Burke said.
Testing for the virus was a top priority, so he connected with a private laboratory to ensure that his firefighters, who were transporting coronavirus patients to hospitals, could be regularly tested.
And then he heard that Thermo Fisher Scientific, a Massachusetts company that makes laboratory equipment and materials, was beta testing an air sampler that could help him detect airborne coronavirus particles.
By December, he had installed one in a fire station hallway. The device, about the size of a toaster oven, sucked in ambient air and trapped airborne virus particles — if there were any to be found — in a specialised cartridge. Each afternoon, an employee would remove the cartridge and walk it to the UPS drop box across the street, sending it off for laboratory analysis.
Before the month was out, the air sampler had turned up traces of the virus. Officials ultimately traced it back to a town employee who had been working in the station, without a mask, during a quiet holiday period.
It was proof of concept for Thermo Fisher Scientific’s AerosolSense Sampler, which the company was making publicly available Wednesday. The device, the company says, can be used to detect a variety of airborne pathogens, including the coronavirus. It could be deployed in hospitals, offices, schools and other buildings to monitor for signs of the virus as society begins to reopen.
The AerosolSense, which will sell for $US4995, is not the first air sampler capable of capturing the coronavirus; scientists have used several other models to study the pathogen over the past year. But the new device appears to be simpler and more accessible, experts said.
“I’m not sure that there’s anything else on the market that’s as easy to use,” said Linsey Marr, an expert in airborne viruses at Virginia Tech. “This will enable collection of air samples by almost anyone.”
Thermo Fisher Scientific is likely to face competition. The pandemic has galvanised interest in a once-niche area of disease surveillance — pulling pathogens out of thin air. Experts in the field say they have been inundated with calls and emails from companies, organisations and other laboratories interested in developing or using coronavirus-collecting air samplers. (Marr is consulting with one company, whose name she could not disclose, to develop an air sampler that would monitor for the virus in public places.)
And in November, the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency began soliciting proposals for research to develop a coronavirus-detecting air sensor.
“There’s a tremendous amount of interest,” said John Lednicky, a virologist at the University of Florida.
The approach has real potential, experts say. But it also raises a thicket of logistical questions, they add, and must be deployed carefully, with a clear understanding of what the technology can and cannot do.