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Texas A&M system helps develop rapid COVID-19 breath testing kiosk

Published: Nov. 19, 2020 at 11:05 PM CST
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BRYAN, Texas (KBTX) - The SecureAmerica Institute, which is part of the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station on the RELLIS Campus, is helping a Dallas-based company develop a rapid COVID-19 breath test.

By simply breathing into an artificial intelligence device, a person can find out whether they have COVID, and the results come back within seconds. It means no more swabs and waiting days to find out whether someone has tested positive for the coronavirus.

“The team in Dallas called Worlds, Inc. came up with an idea to use their artificial intelligence algorithm in using mass spectrometry to figure out a way to use the technology to detect COVID in breath,” SecureAmerica Institute Executive Director Rob Gorham said. “It looks for organic compounds in your breath that have a signature that tells you whether you’ve got the virus or not.”

Worlds contacted Texas A&M for help with prototyping and deploying the device, which is called a Worlds Protect kiosk. Gorham says it’s an individual screening mechanism that can test a large number of people quickly enough to give people the confidence that everyone in the immediate environment isn’t spreading COVID-19.

“There’s a lot of immediacy in the impact,” said David Staack, a Texas A&M mechanical engineering associate professor who’s been working extensively on the project. “We can really go and turn something around and do testing with a few people today over in the rec center for example, or plan testing to help the artificial intelligence learn how to analyze breaths.”

Gorham says another major benefit of this new technology is eliminating the swab testing that is widely used now. He says this method his team is helping to develop is not only more efficient, but also not intrusive by requiring a sample form the cheek or nose.

“The traditional swab takes time. There are logistics challenges with handling the swabs and getting it over to testing environments, laboratories, etc.,” Gorham said. “In 15 minutes, even on a rapid test, it’s still a challenge when thinking about cues of people trying to enter into schools, hospitals, football stadiums, churches, and parks. Looking at all of those things, a traditional test just really isn’t sufficient from a logistics perspective.”

Gorham and Staack’s team aren’t the only ones that have tested the kiosk either.

“There have been tests by the Air Force and other universities,” Gorham said. “It has been proven to work. It’s a matter of statistics at this point, and we’re trying to gather more data, and the more data we can gather, the better and more confident we’re going to be in this test once it does get deployed.”

One of the prototypes was set up on the Texas A&M campus Thursday to test students and others. Those results will be used to test the accuracy of Worlds Protect and refine its system while they look to get the necessary FDA approvals and emergency use authorizations to deploy the device for use by the general public.

“Orders are already starting to come in, meaning people are really expressing a tremendous interest,” Gorham said. “Once the press release went out, people are all of a sudden saying, ‘Man, I want these on construction sites, in my schools, and in my church.’ That demand is ultimately going to drive us to get these out as fast as we can.”

The Worlds Protect kiosks will also provide a major opportunity to learn more about the virus on top of simply serving as a testing vessel, according to Gorham.

“We’re going to learn a lot about the different geography and the makeup of the people taking the tests, and about the environments those people are taking the tests in,” Gorham said. “The more data you can create, the more accurately you’re going to be able to deploy these things.”

But both Staack and Gorham say what excites them most about this new technology is its potential to change what tomorrow in the pandemic looks like, giving people the confidence to be among one another once again.

“This can change very much the way that we’re approaching this pandemic and maybe future things that might be like it,” Staack said. “Instead of this two, three days of where am I in limbo, what do I need to think about, can I be in this place safely or not? This can very quickly say I’m okay and you’re okay, so we can interact a little bit more like we used to.”

“We’ve been in masks for a little over nine months at this point. I don’t know about you, but it’s getting pretty old,” Gorham said. “I think this is going to be a game changer when we get into the new year being able to get back to some sense of normalcy interacting together as people.”

The Texas A&M System has invested $1 million in the project’s development. Worlds, Inc. and the SecureAmerica Institute hope to have five prototypes ready to go on the Texas A&M campus by the end of the year.

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