Each week, OMRF President Dr. Stephen Prescott opens “Adam’s Journal” to answer a medical question from OMRF Senior Vice President and General Counsel Adam Cohen.
As people return to workplaces, schools, houses of worship, restaurants and all sorts of other shared spaces, are there devices we can use to detect coronavirus particles in the air? I’d imagine these could be a great tool for preventing future viral outbreaks.
Dr. Prescott Prescribes
Last month, a company that makes laboratory equipment launched a new product designed to do exactly this. While it’s not the first device designed to detect SARS-CoV-2 particles in the air, it may be the easiest to use. But it’s far from a silver bullet.
About as big as a microwave, the device pulls air in through a smokestack-like pipe to a replaceable cartridge. After a few hours, the cartridge is pulled out of the machine – which retails for just under $5,000 – for analysis using PCR (polymerase chain reaction), the most accurate form of viral testing.
If, like hospitals or the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, you’re lucky enough to have PCR testing capabilities onsite, you can process the cartridges yourself and get results within a few hours. But others will have to send the cartridge to a lab and wait a day or two for results.
Obviously, that kind of wait is problematic. Would you buy a smoke detector that didn’t alert you to a potential fire until a day or two later?
Another issue is testing sensitivity. Although the company, Thermo Fisher Scientific, says the device can detect even low levels of viral particles, it has yet to publish results in a scientific journal.
So, it remains unknown just how accurate the device is. In particular, I’d worry about false negatives, which would mean a failure to detect viral particles in the air.
Until companies develop real-time viral samplers – machines that don’t require that a cartridge be mailed off for processing – with proven accuracy, the utility of air-detecting devices remains extremely limited.
But stay tuned. With a strong public desire for safe indoor spaces as we move forward, there will be plenty of companies looking for solutions. And as we’ve seen throughout this pandemic, health technology can accomplish a lot in a short time, especially when there’s robust demand.
Do you have a health query for Dr. Prescott? Email firstname.lastname@example.org and your question may be answered in a future column!