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PITTSBURGH, Pa. — Detecting the earliest signs of COVID-19? There’s an app for that.

Just like ships have sonar systems on board to detect approaching obstacles, our lungs and airways can also send signals of distress through what’s called reflective soundwaves.

“Depending on how much the airway has changed, this will change the pattern of the reflective signal and such pattern changes could be measured by our speakers in our phones,” said Dr. Wei Gao, associate professor at University of Pittsburgh, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Using standard tools found on a smartphone – the speaker and microphone – Gao and his team developed a mobile COVID-19 sensing system.

“People can use this as a daily and convenient self diagnosis … just like you get up every morning to check how your body feels,” Gao said.

Here’s how the system works. Users breathe into an attachable mouthpiece, generating soundwaves that travel through the airways to the lungs. When they reach an obstruction like inflammation, mucus or narrowing, reflective acoustic signals bounce back.

“If you have a certain problem in the lung, there could be certain inflammations which will narrow the airways, and thus narrow airways will produce extra reflections, so the reflective sounds will be captured by our microphone and be analyzed,” Gao said.

The non-invasive at-home monitoring system is not designed to replace standard viral testing. Instead, the technology may help reduce the burden on the public health system – particularly when it comes to testing.

“The United States has done a huge number of tests, but essentially a very large portion of such tests comes out to be negative,” Gao said. “This technique can never be a direct replacement of RNA test; however, you can use this as a first-hand precautions diagnosis. So if you see nothing, nothing at all …. Then there is a higher likelihood the fever is not caused by COVID.”

Gao and his colleagues are still in the pilot phase. They’ve developed a prototype which includes a 3D-printed trachea so they can tweak the system in the lab. Next up – testing it out on humans, and ultimately patients in the hospital.

“This technique is interesting step and we are very happy to have opportunity to possibly contribute to the fight against virus,” he said.

Gao said the technology can ultimately be applied to other acute or chronic respiratory diseases, in addition to the novel coronavirus.