If you’re infected with COVID, your chemical “breath print” changes, making it possible for breathalyzers to accurately detect the disease. In a new study, a prototype breathalyzer gave results in five minutes with an accuracy comparable to PCR tests, the results of which can take days to get back from overwhelmed labs.
“Human breath contains a lot of metabolites that can be used for disease detection,” says Xing Yi Ling, a biological chemistry professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the study. Her team developed a breathalyzer with sensors that react to the unique compounds present in the breath when someone has COVID.
To use the tool, you breathe into a single-use tube for 10 seconds, and then it’s loaded into a small, printer-size spectrometer that reads the results. While scientists have developed some other COVID breathalyzers, this system is portable, so it could easily be used at the entry to crowded places like stadiums or conference centers to give fast results and find people who have COVID, but may not have any symptoms.
The researchers tested the technology at the airport in Singapore, giving both a PCR test and a breathalyzer test to travelers stepping off planes. They also tested it at a hospital. The method had a false negative rate of 3.8%, and a false positive rate of 0.1%. “Based on the 501 people that we tested, our sensitivity and accuracy are comparable to RT-PCR,” Ling says. “That’s a small-scale study, and of course, more validation needs to be done in near future and is currently ongoing.” The technology may also need to be updated if new COVID variants emerge and that change the characteristics of COVID breath.
It’s not something that would be used everywhere, since the spectrometer that reads results is expensive. But for large events, it could be a faster way to clear people for entry that also avoids the awkwardness of sticking a swab in your nose. The researchers have spun out a new company and are taking steps toward commercialization.