Researchers from Northeastern University have brought in a new wearable device and a set of algorithms designed to detect early signs and symptoms of COVID-19. Additionally, the gear is also meant to monitor patients as the condition progresses.

The gadget, about the size of a postage stamp, is soft and flexible. Furthermore, the wireless device is meant to sit just below the suprasternal notch, which is the groove at the base of the throat.

While most conventional wearable devices, such as fitness trackers, are meant to be placed on the wrist or finger, the researchers thought it was not the anatomical location that is most relevant to COVID-19. The suprasternal notch, on the other hand, would be an ideal location for keeping an eye on one's respiratory health.

The findings of the study were published in the journal Science Advances on July 1, 2020.

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Wearable COVID-19 Detectors

The Northwestern team, together with researchers from Shirley Ryan Ability lab produced the device this past spring. Furthermore, more recently, the team added a flexible and easy-to-wear pulse oximeter to pair with the suprasternal-mounted device.

The additional apparatus would allow physicians to efficiently monitor for signs of silent hypoxia, which is an asymptomatic characteristic of the disease, marked by significantly low blood oxygen levels.

According to the researchers, this added feature will enhance the device and its accompanying algorithms, presenting a fuller picture of the disease's onset, progression, and reaction to treatment.

According to bioelectronics pioneer and one of the authors of the study, John Rogers, the device measures tiny vibrations on the skin. Additionally, it also has an embedded temperature sensor for fever. The device could also count how many times the wearer coughs or breathes, and it monitors the intensity of the cough.

An amazing feature is that it can detect labored breathing. As the tiny device is positioned just below the throat, it could measure mechanical signatures of blood flow that allow monitoring of the heart rate as well.

Dr. Shuai Xu, a Northwestern Medicine dermatologist and a co-author of the study, says that their sensor system targets key symptoms for COVID-19. Its main goal is to detect the coronavirus infection earlier in patients.

He described the device as a suite of clinical-grade sensors encased into one small device. Once it's placed on the throat, he says people hardly even realize that it's there.

Coronavirus Detection Made Easy

According to Arun Jayaraman, a researcher assistant scientist at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, they are already seeing clear vital sign variations collected by the sensor between patients with COVID-19 and healthy-matched controls. Moreover, scientists say they are working together to develop predictive algorithms for the early detection of the disease.

To hasten the manufacturing and deployment of the device, Rogers and Xu launched technology startup Sonica Health. It is based on intellectual property (IP) cooperatively developed by Northwestern and the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab.

Sonica Health previously partnered with BARDA for technology concentrated on chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Now the partnership has broadened to focus on early detection of COVID-19 and other respiratory infections. Moreover, in collaboration with another spinout from QSIB, Sibel Health, the company will aim to provide the pulse oximetry sensor.

With BARDA's support, Sonica Health and Sibel Health will mutually submit the device and affiliated algorithms for Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval later this month. In conclusion, the team's overall goal is an FDA-cleared platform that provides an early warning of COVID-19 contraction, which helps lessen the transmission of the virus.

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