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Project Spotlight: Open Source 3D-Printed Nasopharyngeal Swab

An open-source 3D-printed swab that can be created with low resources, such as a $100 3D printer.

Written by: Jordan Green

For high-volume COVID-19 testing to take place, a high volume of nasopharyngeal swabs will be required. In order to meet the need, some groups are 3D-printing swabs to use in place of traditional swabs. This project team is designing a 3D-printable swab that they hope to have evaluated for safety and compatibility with testing kits and later, for clinical trials.

The Challenge

In order to determine the extent and understand the spread of the coronavirus, widespread testing is needed. Testing paints a clearer picture of how the disease caused by the virus spreads by providing information on who has contracted COVID-19 and where. However, current testing rates are relatively low in the U.S. and many other countries. In order to test higher numbers of individuals for the coronavirus, more testing equipment is required. 

One essential component to coronavirus PCR testing is the nasopharyngeal swab, which is a long, flexible Q-tip-like tool for collecting a sample through the nose. However, production of these swabs in the U.S. was not increased for the purpose of coronavirus testing until late April, and a shortage persists.

The Solution

The Open Source 3D-Printed Nasopharyngeal Swab project, supported by Helpful Engineering, is designing a nasopharyngeal swab that is different from the traditional synthetic fiber ones. This team is modeling a swab design to be produced via 3D printer, specifically with Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM). 

FDM describes a type of 3D printing in which a spool of hard plastic filament is fed by a motor into a heated print head that melts the filament as it expels it, layer by layer, onto a descending print bed to create a design from the bottom up. This printing process is comparable to piping letters onto a cake in icing, or using a hot glue gun. After the melted filament is printed, it cools and re-solidifies, bonding with the layers printed above and below it to form a solid object

What we are trying to do is to create an open-source 3D-printed swab that can be created with low resources, such as a $100 3D printer.

The project team is using soft PLA filament to print flexible swab prototypes, chosen for its elasticity and mechanical properties. 

“Swabs are in short supply due to COVID-19,” wrote project lead Dr. Tony Lim in an interview via Slack. He went on to describe the need for a design that can be produced inexpensively for communities with limited resources: “Developing countries are especially having difficulty getting medical supplies such as swabs as they are going to the top bidder. What we are trying to do is to create an open-source 3D-printed swab that can be created with low resources, such as a $100 3D printer.

Members of the small team behind the Open Source 3D-printed Nasopharyngeal Swab project hail from Canada, South Africa, and Switzerland, and collaborate remotely over the project’s Slack channel. Dr. Lim and partner Larissa Ferguson are neuroscientists, and also have a background in 3D printing from running their 3D-printed art business, LV99DOGE, together. The team also includes medical doctor Jackie Rabec, biomedical engineer Susana Lopes, and process engineer Demetria Zenyemba. 

The team believes they currently have a design that meets or exceeds the criteria for a 3D-printed swab, and Dr. Lim says he’s even tested it on himself. He explained what is needed next: “Now we are looking for clinicians and nurses who do COVID-19 [nasopharyngeal] swabbing to look at the form and flexibility of the swab and to compare it to what they are currently using in the clinic.

What the project needs most right now is greater visibility among persons who might have the capacity to help validate the swab design.

In addition, before the team’s 3D-printed swab could be used in testing, it would have to be determined whether the design is compatible with RT-PCR techniques, which are used in COVID-19 testing that requires nasopharyngeal swabs.

How You Can Help

If you are a clinician or virus expert or know any clinicians or virus experts that want to help move the Open Source 3D-Printed Nasopharyngeal Swab project forward, contact the team via email or slack here:

Project Lead: [email protected]

Project Manager: [email protected]

Slack Channel: #project-nasopharyngeal-swab (Helpful Engineering workspace)

To read more about other Helpful Engineering projects, and to learn how to volunteer, check out the website.

The designs for this swab are presented As-Is. The goal is to present designs that can foster further discussion and be utilized in countries that permit this product. These are not finalized designs and do not represent certification from any country. You accept responsibility and release Helpful Engineering from liability for the manufacture or use of this product. This design was created in response to the announcement on March 10, 2020, from the HHS.  Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) who issued a declaration pursuant to the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness (PREP) Act

Link to Prep act. :


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