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Scientists highlight use of mass spectrometers for airborne screening of pathogens, contagion monitoring

Scientists have said in the paper that as normalcy begins to set in, high-traffic public spaces need to be monitored for contagions that can spread from the air, commonly touched surfaces and fomites.

Written by Anuradha Mascarenhas | Pune |
Updated: July 14, 2021 9:29:14 am
coronavirusOne of the authors, Kuhan Chandru, a chemist from the National University of Malaysia, also said mitigating global pandemics required collaborations between non-apparent research fields.

EVEN AS several countries are attempting to find technical solutions to overcome the adverse impact of mass-scale containment and economic lockdowns caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, a team of scientists have suggested the use of mass spectrometers for airborne screening of pathogens, and for monitoring the contagion in public spaces.

Mass spectrometry is an analytical tool useful for measuring the mass to charge ratio of one or more molecules present in a sample. A team of scientists from India, Malaysia, Germany, USA and Japan have proposed an interdisciplinary approach for developing a contagion surveillance strategy in an international peer-reviewed journal, Sustainability, recently.

“This will help monitor and detect airborne pathogens in high-traffic public places, such as airports, railway stations and hospitals,” said Dr Chaitanya Giri, a technology strategist from Earth-Life Science Institute, Japan, and Gateway House, India, and lead author of the paper, ‘The post Covid-19 era – Interdisciplinary demands of contagion surveillance mass spectrometry for future pandemics’.

Although mass spectrometer is essentially a table-top instrument based in laboratories, the co-authors of this paper have proposed several advancements to make it operate directly and portably in the field. They suggest the need for extensive data analysis and treating it with mass spectrometry-based machine learning to identify viral biochemical markers taken from airborne contagions.

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One of the authors, Kuhan Chandru, a chemist from the National University of Malaysia, also said mitigating global pandemics required collaborations between non-apparent research fields.

Scientists have said in the paper that as normalcy begins to set in, high-traffic public spaces need to be monitored for contagions that can spread from the air, commonly touched surfaces and fomites.

“We have also recommended that scientists designing contagion-monitoring mass spectrometer collaborate with others working on similarly portable and field-based mass spectrometer used for other applications,” Dr Giri said.

Such applications include planetary exploration missions and chemical, biological, and nuclear (CBRN) monitoring applications. Mass spectrometer onboard space missions attempting to detect life forms on other planets and those used by security agencies have a lot in common with those capable of detecting contagions from public spaces, scientists said.

For example, merging lessons from machine learning, big data, analytical chemistry and astrobiology for R&D of mass spectrometry can help identify and contain the spread of airborne pathogens in high-traffic public spaces, Dr Giri said.

In turn, once the contagion is detected, people moving around those areas will be cautioned and encouraged to wear masks and practise social distancing. Sanitising efforts can concentrate on those areas where the contagion has been detected. Hence, significant transmission in public spaces can be prevented, thus reducing the spread of disease, the scientist said.

Before mass spectrometry can be made into a foolproof monitoring tool, research is still necessary at this stage, requiring funding. Tapping interdisciplinary expertise may provide innovative solutions in handling a potential pandemic while enabling normalcy.

The authors have begun working on the paper’s ideas to develop such a monitoring tool based on mass spectrometry.

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