Kromek device sniffs out airborne Covid-19 at Teesside Airport

Teesside International Airport is trialling a machine that can detect airborne Covid-19 particles. Developed by UK tech firm Kromek, the device provides data in real time by sucking in air particulates, which it condenses into liquid then identifies the genetic sequence of any Covid-19 virus present. Frankie Youd investigates the technology.

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Many countries are cautiously beginning to lift Covid-19 restrictions and the aviation industry has implemented various new guidelines and regulations to reduce infection risks. Many airports require some combination of Covid testing, vaccination proof, or both.

Media reports have shown this extra layer of security has led to long 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 has developed a solution: a machine that tests the air for Covid.

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 its original threat detection machines, the company is now trialling the devices at Teesside International Airport and a school in Darlington.

A nose for Covid

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

The device sucks in air at 400L per minute and condenses any biological materials into a single droplet of water. A Kromek technology known as Next Generation Sequencing then reads the genome and compares it 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.

Our system can augment the government’s Test and Trace system by enabling early identification of potential exposure to the virus.

The Kromek technology enables the virus to 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.”

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 over 150,000 passengers a year usually passing through – except for recent disruption due to Covid-19 – it is imperative that Covid-19 testing is as thorough and accurate as can be.

The airport is one of the first buildings to trial the new technology, with hopes that the trial will provide helpful information for further airport inclusion. Installed on 23 June, the introduction of the technology aims to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic and provide innovation, and collaboration between the airport and Kromek.

Basu commented that the company is “proud to be conducting the pilot exercise” at the airport as part of wider trials of the technology.

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.”