This simple clip can detect how much coronavirus surrounds you

Photo of Ed Stannard

NEW HAVEN — The idea is simple and extremely effective: Wear a clip that picks up the coronavirus in the air and lets you know how exposed you have been.

It won’t tell you in real-time whether you are in a high-risk zone. But according to its lead creator, Krystal Pollitt, assistant professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health, “I can see a lot of use for people who are going to work in places that are at higher risk,” she said. In five days or less, the clip can be analyzed to see how much exposure the wear has experienced.

It also will be valuable in “all of those places where you can’t take all the precautions,” such as eating in schools or where social distancing is not possible, like riding a subway.

While the Fresh Air Clip is not like a COVID alarm, its simplicity and inexpensive cost to produce will make it usable in many such situations, she said. Pollitt said it eventually could be used by consumers, but she couldn’t say how much it might cost. “We’re definitely headed in that direction,” she said. “We’re not at the point where we can make those estimates.”

Unlike large air samplers, the clip is small, light, portable and requires no electricity. “The clip is a passive sampler, so we have no electronics in there,” Pollitt said. “We have a polymer film within the clip and the nature of the polymer film is optimal for collecting respiratory viruses like SARS-CoV-2.”

It’s also extremely sensitive, she said. “We’ve calibrated the clip so we can get down to four RNA copies in the air” in order for the clip to show exposure, she said. The film is processed using a standard PCR analysis.

One thing the clip can’t tell its wearers is how much risk they have of developing COVID-19. “Exactly the type of work that we would love to do … but we’re not there yet,” Pollitt said.

One thing the research has made clear, however: “Out of all the locations that we use the clip, the highest exposures and the most frequent exposures were found in restaurants with indoor dining,” she said. “I think it’s important to acknowledge it’s a high-risk environment.”

One area that was kind of a surprise, however, was health care settings, where the exposure was lower than expected. “Because of all the layered infectious-control measures the level was lower than all of the restaurants that we had assessed,” she said.

Pollitt said the developers would be open to talking to governmental officials about using the clip to set policy on COVID precations. For now, “We are working with administrators at health care centers on enhanced infection-control measures that should be implemented if we’re finding repeats of high exposure,” she said.

Versions of the device have been used to detect chemical and environmental exposure for some time and Pollitt’s research focuses on such exposure. So when the pandemic hit in March 2020, she and her colleagues, including researchers at the Yale School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, where Pollitt also is an assistant professor, began looking at how to use the clips to detect the coronavirus.

In a study published in Environmental Science & Technology Letters, 62 people in Connecticut wore the clips, including at Yale New Haven Hospital, outpatient clinics within the hospital, at Fair Haven Community Health Care and at restaurants in New Haven and Hartford. Pollitt said she couldn’t reveal the restaurants.

“We had people wear the clips for five days,” Pollitt said. Now, however, “we have higher virus numbers and just a lot more people return to schools and work. Wearing it for a shorter time would be feasible.”

Pollitt said the devices the Fresh Air Clip is based on are used to detect the airborne chemicals from stoves, car tailpipes and flame retardants and can identify 500 to 600 chemicals.

They are used in work settings, as well, “but the primary use for this has been with the general public,” including children, women who are pregnant or couples who are trying to get pregnant, and the elderly, she said.

An ongoing study with Boston University called Presto is “looking at environmental factors related to pregnancy,” she said. “We looked at what both the male and female partners were being exposed to. … It’s an absolutely fascinating study and use.”

Pollitt said the next step will be to make them available to the general public.

edward.stannard@hearstmediact.com; 203-680-9382