Detecting airborne Covid-19: The machine that sniffs the air
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Detecting airborne Covid-19: The machine that sniffs the air

By Frankie Youd 26 Aug 2021 (Last Updated August 18th, 2021 11:51)

The ongoing, ever changing Covid-19 pandemic has seen the aviation industry adapt to new challenges, regulations, and guidelines to keep passengers and staff safe. Alongside these safety measures new technology is currently being trialled by Teesside International Airport using a machine being able to detect airborne Covid-19 particles. Developed by UK tech firm Kromek, the device provides data in real time by sucking in air which it then turns to liquid to genetically sequence.

Detecting airborne Covid-19: The machine that sniffs the air
Developed by UK tech firm Kromek, the device provides data in real time by sucking in air which it then turns to liquid to genetically sequence. Credit: Teesside International Airport and Kromek.

With Covid-19 restrictions slowly beginning to lift for many countries across the globe the aviation industry has implemented various new guidelines and regulations surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic. While some airports require testing, others require vaccination certificates, and in some cases, both are needed to be provided.

As reported by mass media this extra layer of security being carried out by airports sees lines of passengers, extended waiting times and delays to boarding. In an attempt to speed up this process and act as an extra layer of security, Kromek have developed a solution: a machine that tests the air.

Initially developed to detect airborne pathogens, toxic gasses and other security threats, these office printer-sized machines are now using their ‘noses’ to look for airborne Covid-19 particulates. After receiving government funding – a £1.25m investment from Innovate UK – to adapt their original threat detection machines, the company is now trialling the devices at Teesside International Airport as well as at a school in Darlington.

 

A nose for Covid

The Kromek system – known as a biological threat detection system – identifies threats such as Covid-19 through a mobile system. Samples from the air are tested to detect illness before an individual begins to show and experience symptoms. This fully automated, autonomous system constantly reads the microbe sequences it collects from the air.

By sucking in air at 400l per minute and condensing the biological materials into a single droplet of water, Next Generation Sequencing allows the genome to be read and compared against a database of existing pathogens stored within the system. This also means that when a new, emerging threat is tested it can be detected early on due to parts of its genome being shared by close taxonomic relatives. No laboratory or external testing is required for the machine to identify threats, the entire identification process takes place at the point of collection and takes around 30 minutes.

Using the Kromek technology the virus can be detected in the air in real time – rather than exclusively relying on lateral flow tests or for individuals to develop systems. This early identification of the virus will allow for earlier pinpointing of potential infection exposure which will help reduce transmission.

Kromek CEO Dr Arnab Basu told Sky News: “Our system can augment the government’s Test and Trace system by enabling early identification of potential exposure to the virus while supporting the safe return of visitors to public spaces like mass transport, retail outlets and entertainment venues.”

“We also believe that the continuous monitoring with our system, which can test for a wide spectrum of viruses as well as mutations of Covid-19, has significant potential for protecting against the outbreak of pandemics in the future.”

“We also believe that the continuous monitoring with our system, which can test for a wide spectrum of viruses as well as mutations of Covid-19, has significant potential for protecting against the outbreak of pandemics in the future.”

 

Airport testing

Located on the River Tees’ north side between Darlington and Stockton-on-Tees, Teesside Airport serves the North East and North Yorkshire. With the airport serving over 150,000 passengers a year – with the exception of the years experiencing disruption due to Covid-19 – it is imperative that Covid-19 testing is as through and accurate as can be.

The airport is currently one of the first airports, as well as buildings, to trial the new technology with hopes that the trial will provide helpful information for further airport inclusion. Installed on 23 June the technology inclusion aims to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic and provide innovation, and collaboration between the airport and Kromek. In a press release Basu commented that the company is “proud to be conducting the pilot exercise” at the airport as part of wider trials of the technology.

“We’re delighted Teesside is not just one of the first airports, but one of the first buildings, to be trialling this new detector, which could be a real game-changer.”

In a press release Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen said: “Kromek is a ground-breaking company that has adapted what it does best to develop this system in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. We’re delighted Teesside is not just one of the first airports, but one of the first buildings, to be trialling this new detector, which could be a real game-changer.”

“Since day one of the pandemic, the airport has put the health and wellbeing of people across Teesside, Darlington and Hartlepool at the front of everything we’ve done, and with this pilot we can play our part in helping to protect the health of thousands of others.”