Researchers will trial a new approach for coronavirus testing that could determine whether someone is infectious before symptoms are present.

Experts at the University of Leicester say that if successful, the method could simplify large-scale screening for the virus and curb the spread of Covid-19.

Scientists will use simple, low-cost face masks adapted using 3D printed strips that can trap exhaled microbes while the mask is worn for 30 minutes.

They say using the adapted mask to screen for coronavirus could allow large groups to be checked at once, potentially helping to curb the spread of the virus and avoiding long stays in quarantine.

Mike Barer, Professor of clinical microbiology, said: “Coronavirus is spread from the mouth, throat and respiration system of infected individuals.

“This new approach is exciting because it could help us determine whether a person is infectious or not, even before symptoms of the virus have appeared.

“Measuring how much of the virus is breathed out by using the mask sampling approach will allow us to compare levels of the virus exhaled by different individuals, and could help us focus control efforts on preventing spread.

“The mask can easily be processed in any standard virus diagnostic laboratory.

“Successful development of this approach could be transformative.”

The pilot work is being funded through the University’s QR Global Challenges Research Fund allocation (Research England), as part of the global drive to manage the coronavirus outbreak.

The adapted mask has previously been successfully used to screen patients for tuberculosis.

The University of Leicester will conduct the trial in partnership with the NHS and international partners, including a partnership in South Africa to use the mask technology to test for influenza.

Patients with other respiratory virus infections will be checked first. They will then compare the mask with throat swab results.

If successful, researchers will then move on to trials with Covid-19 infections.

It will be at least two to three months before researchers can sample possible coronavirus patients because they need to fully validate the new approach first.

The materials for each mask currently cost around £2 as the inserts are individually 3D printed at the University of Leicester, but if manufactured on an industrial scale the sampling masks would cost just pennies.