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US military to develop wearable device to detect early signs of coronavirus

The device could help identify people who have been infected but show delayed symptoms
UPDATED MAY 11, 2020
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The US military has its eyes set on developing a gadget that catches the early signs of Covid-19, with the hopes that it could aid in the fight against the invisible threat.

To make this a reality, the army will award 25 million dollars if a company can use existing technology to develop the gadget.  The device could help identify presymptomatic patients:  people who have been infected but do not yet show symptoms. Because they develop delayed signs of the disease, they could unwittingly pass on the virus to others.

"There is a dire and urgent need for the development of rapid, accurate wearable diagnostics to identify and isolate pre-symptomatic Covid-19 cases and track or prevent the spread of the virus," the Army is reported to have said in an initial solicitation that was issued through a medical consortium.

They aim to build a device that can detect fever, respiratory difficulties, signs of exposure to the virus, and antibodies against it. If the device raises an alarm, the users can get a test, and receive medical attention if necessary, according to CNN.

But researchers from Northwestern University have already come up with a similar wearable sensor.  The device, which sits on the base of the throat, can measure and analyze changes in coughing and respiratory activity.

A gadget developed by Northwestern University (Northwestern University)

“The most recent studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggest that the earliest signs of a COVID-19 infection are fever, coughing, and difficulty in breathing. Our device sits at the perfect location on the body — the suprasternal notch — to measure respiratory rate, sounds, and activity because that’s where airflow occurs near the surface of the skin,” Northwestern’s John A. Rogers, said in a statement.

Data from the device can feed into research. “The growing amount of information and understanding around Covid-19 as a disease will be critically important to containing and treating the current outbreak as well as those that might occur in the future,” he said. “We hope, and we believe, that these devices may help in these efforts by identifying and quantifying characteristics and essential features of cough and respiratory activity associated with this disease," Rogers added.

The team is testing the device on 25 patients, who are being monitored both in the clinic and at home.

Adapting current technology

The pandemic has also inspired the modification of existing technologies. For instance, an Army team based at Fort Benning, Georgia, has modified googles into temperature screening devices, scanning 300 troops in just 25 minutes.

The device is a modified version of the goggles designed to help soldiers keep their eyes on a target and also receive information about it. 

The military roped in Microsoft to tailor the googles for use in Covid-19 screening.  Four days later, Microsoft and the Army "loaded in a new software application," which adapted the goggles to read body temperatures at a safe distance with little to no contact, according to CNN.

The device holds applications in high traffic areas such as public transportation, airports, and buildings. It can help the US military track body temperatures of recruits.