Medical researchers at the Pentagon have created a microsensor implant that may eventually detect COVID-19 when inserted under the skin.
Relax, conspiracy theorists — they’re not being disseminated via vaccines.
The revolutionary subdermal technology was developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which operates under the Pentagon umbrella, according to Sunday night’s broadcast of “60 Minutes.” The top-secret unit was launched during the Cold War to study emerging technologies for military use — among them, innovations to defend soldiers from biological weapons.
Dr. Matt Hepburn, an infectious disease physician and retired Army colonel, revealed that the microsensor, which is not in widespread use outside the Defense Department, could help detect infections — and COVID-19 — in an individual well before a patient zero spawns an outbreak.
“We challenge the research community to come up with solutions that may sound like science fiction,” said Hepburn, whose role at DARPA, he added, is to “take pandemics off the table.”
Hepburn compared their diagnostic device to a car’s “Check engine” alert.
Despite conspiracy theories that claim Microsoft’s Bill Gates is using vaccines as a vehicle to insert a microscopic global positioning system into our bodies, “60 Minutes” clarified that DARPA’s device would not “track your every move.” Nor is it being administered via shots, as some would-be Twitter sleuths have pondered.
“It’s a sensor,” Hepburn told CBS correspondent Bill Whitaker. “That tiny green thing in there, you put it underneath your skin and what that tells you is that there are chemical reactions going on inside the body and that signal means you are going to have symptoms tomorrow.”
The microsensor, embedded in a tissue-like gel, is designed to continuously test the implant recipient’s blood for presence of the virus. Once an infection is detected, the sensor alerts the patient to conduct a rapid blood test, which can be self-administered, to confirm the positive result.
“We can have that information in three to five minutes,” Hepburn said. “As you truncate that time, as you diagnose and treat, what you do is you stop the infection in its tracks.”
The segment also revealed technology that would allow a standard dialysis machine to remove COVID-19 from the blood using a customized filter. Blood is passed through the machine, where it’s detoxed, then pumped back into the body in a continuous stream until the body is rid of the virus.
A military spouse dubbed “Patient 16” survived a severe bout of the illness, including organ failure and septic shock, thanks to the novel dialysis machine. Treatment lasted four days, after which Patient 16 made a full recovery.
DARPA scientists say their research is critically important to preventing outbreaks in crowded military quarters, such as the one that occurred on the USS Theodore Roosevelt in March and April 2020, which saw 1,271 crewmates test positive for the coronavirus.
Pentagon researchers continue to study COVID-19, and much of their research has been critical in stopping the pandemic, including new methods of detecting and developing antibodies in about 10 weeks — a fraction of the six to 24 months previously required.
They eventually hope to close the gap between new disease detection and vaccine development.
Eventually, said DARPA scientist Dr. James Crowe, “We would start from a blood sample from a survivor … and be giving you an injection of the cure within the 60 days.”
“For us, at DARPA, if the experts are laughing at you and saying it’s impossible, you’re in the right space,” said Hepburn.