Scientists have designed a "smart sleeve" they say could help reduce the spread of Covid-19 at New Zealand's border - and now aim to test it in MIQ facilities.
The smart garment, created by University of Auckland spin-out Elbaware, aims to tackle an important hygiene issue - face-touching.
"We realised there was a gap in the public health measures, so well publicised by the Government, right from the beginning of the pandemic," Elbaware founder and surgical scientist Professor John Windsor said.
While wearing masks, washing hands, social distancing and sneezing or coughing into our sleeves were all vital steps to stop spread, Windsor said face-touching remained a difficult problem to address.
"That's because it is almost always an unconscious or involuntary act and it occurs 15 to 30 times per hour."
Windsor, an Auckland City Hospital surgeon who also leads the university-based Surgical and Translational Research (STaR) Centre, explained the Sars-CoV-2 virus spread in two ways.
One was breathing aerosols containing the virus into our lungs; the other was heavier droplets that contaminate surfaces and are transferred to the mouth, nose and eyes when we touch them with our hands.
It was that risk that got Windsor and his colleagues thinking about a solution.
"Worthwhile projects need to address a need and not just be an interesting idea."
The day before last year's nationwide lockdown, his team mocked up a prototype for a comfortable, washable, "mini sleeve" that's 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) and formed the Elbaware 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 smart phone or smart watch - when the hand approaches the face," he said.
"This makes you aware that you are about to touch your face. The unconscious act becomes conscious."
"If you want to reduce the risk of touching your face then this awareness helps you to stop, and not touch your face."
Tests carried out with hospital junior doctors and supermarket staff have proven promising, he said, with 80 per cent of wearers feeling they touched their faces less.
"The results have both encouraged us and given us the opportunity to further improve the product," he said.
"We are at the point where we are now 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 we are seeking funding to conduct trials amongst the elderly, in rest homes, and with Maori/Pasifika people in their communities," he said.
"We're also exploring the opportunities for airlines and airports and other public transport workers, such as bus drivers."
As for the design itself, the team are currently building in Bluetooth functionality.
"It's not absolutely 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."
He said Elbaware was concentrating initially on the New Zealand market, then aimed to enter the Australian markets when a travel bubble opened.
"We've begun discussions about the Asian market and have identified offshore manufacturing," he said.
"We will be working with NZ Trade and Enterprise to open up these and other markets, such as Europe and the US.
"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 seen as an addition to personal protective equipment - as well as a way to counter other infectious diseases, or even some repetitive behaviour disorders.
"We do not see it displacing any of the important public health measures, but we see it as a valuable adjunctive measure," he said.
"This is important as there are ongoing concerns about community transmission, especially as some countries are into their fourth surge.
"It's important that the Government is doing, and is seen to be doing, all that it can to reduce the risk of contracting Covid, especially in MIQ facilities and the border."