Health: Covid-19, a hi-tech device for rapid breath tests


ENEA is developing an innovative sensor for rapid, reliable and low-cost tests to diagnose the viral infection responsible for Covid-19.  It will be enough to blow into a tube connected to a specific device to have a reliable response in 10/15 minutes. The device, called 'AsDECO' (Asymptomatic DEtection COronavirus) is the size of a smartphone, reusable, works without reagents and can screen a large number of individuals in environments like schools and airports to identify asymptomatics.

"The idea was born from the need to have new early and non-invasive diagnostic technologies", Antonia Lai, researcher at the ENEA Diagnostics and Metrology Laboratory at the Frascati Research Center, who is developing the sensor jointly with Alessandra Pasquo and Simone Mannori, said. “We are working at full speed to build the first sensor within a few months. The field trials, managed by health facilities and hospitals with which we are starting collaborations, will start when the laboratory stage is completed".

Sensor operation diagram. When the virus bounds to the bait, a red signal tells us that the subject is positive
The sensor uses a highly sensitive and selective technique - currently employed in specialized chemical analysis laboratories - which allows the viral proteins contained in breath to be identified in real time.

"The presence of the SARS-Cov2 virus in the sensor – Lai said - induces a change in the reflected light, identified through identification algorithms providing a quick response without the use of reagents. So far, mass screening of entire populations has shown its effectiveness in slowing down the epidemic, also thanks to the identification of asymptomatic individuals. That’s why it is essential to develop new low-cost diagnostic tools for large scale monitoring, crucial for containing the spread of the virus ".

Protein structure of the human receptor and viral target
Currently there are several types of diagnostic tests: the “gold standard”, ie the traditional molecular swab, which searches for the genetic material of the sample, taken from the nasopharyngeal tract (result in 24-48 hours); the rapid swab (antigen test) which identifies the protein components of the virus on a nasopharyngeal sample, allowing a faster result (about 30 minutes) and, although less reliable than the molecular swab, generally considered valid for a first screening; the serological or immunological test wich detects, with a blood sample, if you have come into contact with the virus, but not if an infection is in progress at an early stage; finally, the salivary test, which is not suitable for mass screening as it requires an equipped laboratory.

“The ENEA sensor does not aim at replacing the molecular test but to complement it as a rapid diagnostic test on large population numbers. In the future it will be usable by non-specialized personnel and to detect the presence of other pathogens, simply by changing 'bait' and marker ", Lai concluded.


For more information please contact:

Antonia Lai, ENEA- Diagnostics and Metrology Laboratory (Frascati Reasearch Center) -

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