The SARS-CoV-2 viral load in COVID-19 patients is lower on face mask filters than on nasopharyngeal swabs

A. Smolinska, D.S. Jessop, K.L. Pappan, A. De Saedeleer, A. Kang, A.L. Martin, M. Allsworth, C. Tyson, M.P. Bos, M. Clancy, M. Morel, T. Cooke, T. Dymond, C. Harris, J. Galloway, P. Bresser, N. Dijkstra, V. Jagesar, P.H.M. Savelkoul, E.V.H. BeukenW.H.V. Nix, R. Louis, M. Delvaux, D. Calmes, B. Ernst, S. Pollini, A. Peired, J. Guiot, S. Tomassetti, A.E. Budding, F. McCaughan, S.J. Marciniak, M.P. van der Schee*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Face masks and personal respirators are used to curb the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in respiratory droplets; filters embedded in some personal protective equipment could be used as a non-invasive sample source for applications, including at-home testing, but information is needed about whether filters are suited to capture viral particles for SARS-CoV-2 detection. In this study, we generated inactivated virus-laden aerosols of 0.3-2 microns in diameter (0.9 mu m mean diameter by mass) and dispersed the aerosolized viral particles onto electrostatic face mask filters. The limit of detection for inactivated coronaviruses SARS-CoV-2 and HCoV-NL63 extracted from filters was between 10 to 100 copies/filter for both viruses. Testing for SARS-CoV-2, using face mask filters and nasopharyngeal swabs collected from hospitalized COVID-19-patients, showed that filter samples offered reduced sensitivity (8.5% compared to nasopharyngeal swabs). The low concordance of SARS-CoV-2 detection between filters and nasopharyngeal swabs indicated that number of viral particles collected on the face mask filter was below the limit of detection for all patients but those with the highest viral loads. This indicated face masks are unsuitable to replace diagnostic nasopharyngeal swabs in COVID-19 diagnosis. The ability to detect nucleic acids on face mask filters may, however, find other uses worth future investigation.
Original languageEnglish
Article number13476
Number of pages11
JournalScientific Reports
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 29 Jun 2021

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