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Scientists in New Zealand develop smart sleeve for COVID-19

Scientists in New Zealand have designed a smart sleeve they say could help reduce the spread of COVID-19 at the country’s border – and now aim to test it in MIQ facilities. The smart garment, created by a University of Auckland spin-out, aims to tackle an important hygiene issue – face-touching. The developers realised that this was a gap in the public health measures, so well publicised by the government, right from the beginning of the pandemic.

While wearing masks, washing hands, social distancing and sneezing or coughing into our sleeves were all vital steps to stop spread, the tech developer said that face-touching remained a difficult problem to address. That is because it is almost always an unconscious or involuntary act and it occurs 15 to 30 times per hour.

The day before last year’s nationwide lockdown, the team mocked up a prototype for a comfortable, washable, “mini sleeve” that is worn on one elbow and under clothes. Over the next few weeks, they filed for IP on their invention, secured funding from a donor and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) therefore forming the tech company.

The key to the design is a programmable sensor that detects elbow flexion and when the hand approaches the face. It uses the well-known principle of haptic feedback to give a vibration alert – like a smartphone or smartwatch – when the hand approaches the face. This makes the user aware that they are about to touch their faces. Thus, the unconscious act becomes conscious, said the developers.

As for the design itself, the team is currently building Bluetooth functionality. It is not necessary but will add real value by allowing remote collection of anonymous data, software updates, push messaging, and incentivisation through graphics to show reduced face touching, they added.

Trials carried out with hospital junior doctors and supermarket staff have proven promising, they said, with 80% of wearers feeling they touched their faces less. The results have both encouraged and allowed developers to further improve the product. They added that they are now at the point where they are ready to work with targeted groups to ensure that the product is optimised to various at-risk settings.

Further trials were planned in managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) facilities, an emergency department and at a large medical sales and distribution company. Beyond that, the team is seeking funding to conduct trials amongst the elderly, in rest homes, and with Maori/Pasifika people in their communities. The developers are also exploring the opportunities for airlines and airports and other public transport workers, such as bus drivers.

The team was concentrating initially on the New Zealand market, then aimed to enter the Australian markets when a travel bubble opened. They began discussions about the Asian market and have identified offshore manufacturing. They will also be working with NZ Trade and Enterprise to open these and other markets, such as Europe and the US.

For the developers, there is significant potential to develop the sleeve further with imaging, messaging, and fashion, including co-ordination with re-usable masks. Ultimately, the team hoped their smart sleeve might come to be an addition to personal protective equipment – as well as to counter other infectious diseases, or even some repetitive behaviour disorders.

However, they do not see it displacing any of the important public health measures, but rather they see it as a valuable adjunctive measure. They added that it is important that the government is doing all that it can to reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19, especially in MIQ facilities and the border.

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