Mother ostrich with eggs

Ostrich enthusiasts make masks glow in presence of coronavirus

Image credit: Dreamstime

A group of scientists based at Kyoto Prefectural University have developed surgical-style face masks that glow under UV light if they contain traces of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, according to Kyodo News.

The team hope that the masks could be rolled out for public use, allowing a quick and easy way to test when the wearer has been exposed to the virus or is carrying the virus.

The project was led by Yasuhiro Tsukamoto, who told media that he had always wanted to carry out research on dinosaurs and modern birds, determining that ostriches were the best middle ground, having fingers and nails on the inside of their feathers, making them “very primitive and near dinosaurs”.

He keeps a flock of around 500 captive ostriches roaming in the mountain valleys; each female produces 50 to 100 eggs per year. Tsukamoto noticed in the early 1990s that his captive ostriches were oddly disease-free compared with other captive birds. He and other scientists identified this as being due to their eggs. In the later stages of pregnancy, mothers boost their offspring’s defences by passing on antibodies: mammals via placenta and milk, and birds through yolk.

Ostriches are capable of producing several different types of antibodies: blood-based proteins that neutralise foreign entities in the body such as bacteria and viruses. Tsukamoto's research focuses on customising the antibodies in ostrich eggs by injecting females with inactive viruses, allergens and bacteria, then extracting the antibodies to develop medicines for humans.

Although vaccines have long been sourced with antibodies from other animals, Tsukamoto believes ostrich eggs have advantages due to the rapid pace at which the antibodies form in the yolks; the ability to collect them without harming mother or chick, and the resilience of the ostrich antibodies. Tsukamoto told media that the proteins can withstand high temperatures and acidities, meaning they could even be added to sweets that require cooking temperatures that would break down most antibodies.

In February 2020, the team tried injecting an inactive, non-threatening form of SARS-CoV-2 into female ostriches. Subsequently, they were able to extract a large quantity of antibodies from the eggs they laid.

Next, they developed a special filter placed inside face masks. The filter can be removed and sprayed with a fluorescent dye containing the SARS-CoV-2 antibodies extracted from the eggs. If the virus is present, the filter glows when exposed to UV light.

Tsukamoto and his colleagues conducted experiments over 10 days with 32 Covid-19 patients and found that the masks they wore glowed under UV light. This glow became dimmer as time went by and their viral load decreased. The president of Kyoto Prefectural University himself discovered that he had Covid-19 after wearing one of the prototype masks and noticing that it glowed under UV light, later confirming his Covid status with a PCR test.

Next, the team hopes to expand the experiment to cover 150 participants. Eventually, they hope to gain government approval to sell the masks, possibly in 2022.

“We can mass-produce antibodies from ostriches at a low cost,” said Tsukamoto. “In the future, I want to make this into an easy testing kit that anyone can use.”

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