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‘It puts people’s minds at ease’: UMBC using Maryland-made COVID-detection device in labs, classrooms, dorms

After a visitor to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s Performing Arts & Humanities Concert Hall tested positive for COVID-19 last week, Mike Pound wheeled a lab cart carrying a printer-sized device with a large megaphone-like attachment into the room.

The BioFlash, a Maryland-made technology, sucked in an air sample, passing it over a compact disc-like biosensor containing a COVID-19 antibody. In a matter of minutes, a small digital panel on the side read: “Test complete — No agents detected.” The room was cleared for class to take place the next day.

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“It puts people’s minds at ease to know that they have this available to make sure that they’re working in a safe space,” said Pound, UMBC’s director of environmental safety and health. “The reassurance factor, it’s huge.”

Air flows through the intake hose in front of Will Jardel, safety specialist, as the university's Smiths Detection BioFlash device operates, which can warn of coronavirus in the area that it tests Tue., April 13, 2021. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff)
Air flows through the intake hose in front of Will Jardel, safety specialist, as the university's Smiths Detection BioFlash device operates, which can warn of coronavirus in the area that it tests Tue., April 13, 2021. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff) (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

The university has been using the BioFlash about 10 times a week for the past six weeks to detect the presence of COVID-19 in dorms, locker rooms, classrooms, research labs and other areas, Pound said. It has detected the virus twice so far, in a research lab and an athletics locker room, allowing officials to target the areas for deep cleaning and urge testing for those who have been inside, he said.

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Since Jan. 6, UMBC has reported 83 confirmed COVID-19 cases, 13 of them in the past two weeks. The virus transmits though the air in breath droplets.

The BioFlash device itself isn’t new; the federal government and other customers have used it for a decade, testing mail for anthrax, ricin and other toxic materials. But obtaining COVID-19 antibodies for its biosensors transformed it into another tool to combat the pandemic, said Warren Mino, managing director at Smiths Detection. The Edgewood-based company, a U.S. subsidiary of the U.K.-based threat detection firm Smiths Group, acquired the manufacturer, Baltimore-based PathSensors, last year.

“If that pathogen is present, it will bind to the biosensor and that binding event will create what’s called the calcium cascade,” Mino said. “It’s releasing ions, and that creates a luminescence in the biosensor. … As threats evolve in spaces, we can adapt with that same core device, just changing up those biosensors as needed.”

The BioFlash’s COVID-detection capabilities passed tests at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Frederick, and five of the 30 devices in the field — including the one at UMBC and another at the University of Oregon — are now in use for that purpose, Mino said.

Michael Pound, director of UMBC's environmental safety and health (left) and Will Jardel, safety specialist, with the university's Smiths Detection BioFlash device, which can warn of coronavirus in the area that it tests Tue., April 13, 2021. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff)
Michael Pound, director of UMBC's environmental safety and health (left) and Will Jardel, safety specialist, with the university's Smiths Detection BioFlash device, which can warn of coronavirus in the area that it tests Tue., April 13, 2021. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff) (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

Pound said the device has been particularly helpful in a university setting, where he and Will Jardel, UMBC’s biological safety officer, have deployed it in various sizes and types of rooms.

The device can take as little as 15 minutes to a few hours to determine the presence of a hazard, depending on the size of the space. Pound and Jardel spend about one day a week listening to the BioFlash whir quietly like a microwave and waiting for a result.

It isn’t always used after-the-fact, either. Anticipating more in-person education in the fall, UMBC wanted to show it could increase the number of people in a lab safely, Pound said.

“We are putting it in during class to show that the additional people working in the research lab are safe,” he said. “So it provides instant feedback that our protocols are working, that wearing a face covering is the most essential tool.”

Mino declined to disclose the current price of the devices or the biosensors, which must be replaced after each test. Under PathSensors, the devices were priced at about $35,000 and the discs cost about $100 each, as of 2015, according to a U.S. Department of Homeland Security report.

UMBC's Smiths Detection BioFlash device, which can warn of coronavirus in the area that it tests, displays the detection of coronavirus in a demonstration on April 13.
UMBC's Smiths Detection BioFlash device, which can warn of coronavirus in the area that it tests, displays the detection of coronavirus in a demonstration on April 13. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

Mino said Smiths Detection hopes to see them eventually deployed in medical facilities, office buildings and other venues as people increasingly return to work in-person.

“We’re exploring that now to try to see: How does it help?” Mino said. “Helping people get back into spaces and being safe, that’s Smiths’ mission, and it’s just been wonderful to be a part of the story, and our hope is that we get more adoption of this to help keep people safe as we get back to normalcy.”

UMBC is piloting the BioFlash device and is only paying for the biosensors, Pound said. But he’s urging the various university departments to chip in for it, because he expects it to be useful as more students return to campus in the fall.

“When we get to fall and a higher density for dorm rooms,” Pound said, “our Residential Life folks would love to have this piece of equipment to help with parents’ anxiety regarding their kids now being densely populated in a dorm that they weren’t before.”

Will Jardel, safety specialist, wheels the cart carrying university's Smiths Detection BioFlash device, which can warn of coronavirus in the area that it tests Tue., April 13, 2021. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff)
Will Jardel, safety specialist, wheels the cart carrying university's Smiths Detection BioFlash device, which can warn of coronavirus in the area that it tests Tue., April 13, 2021. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff) (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

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