Singapore

Breathalyser-type test for Covid-19 by NUS spin-off in the works

Diagnosing a patient with Covid-19 could soon be as easy as getting the person to breath into a tube - and getting the results in under a minute.

The breathalyser-type diagnostic test kit, which is still at a prototype stage, is being developed by Breathonix - a spin-off company from the National University of Singapore (NUS).

It has so far achieved an accuracy rate of more than 90 per cent during a pilot clinical trial involving 180 patients at the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID), and researchers will continue to fine-tune the algorithm using data collected from the next phases of the trial.

The researchers are hoping to recruit up to 600 patients over the next few months to validate the technology.

Dr Jia Zhunan, an NUS graduate and chief executive of Breathonix, is confident the breath test could be a game changer in Singapore's fight against the coronavirus.

It is easy to administer, and does not require specially trained staff or the laboratory processing usually required for polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests.

"Results are generated in real time, making it an attractive solution for mass screening, especially in areas with high human traffic," Dr Jia added.

These areas could include airports and dormitories.

The Breathonix test is unlike any other kit currently on the market insofar as it does not detect viral genetic fragments - which are what PCR tests pick up - or viral proteins, detected by rapid antigen tests.

BREATH SIGNATURE

Instead, it registers chemical changes in a patient's breath. Every exhalation contains invisible particles known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are produced by various biochemical reactions in human cells.

But the VOC signature from a healthy person's breath is different from that of a person with an illness. The breath signature also differs from disease to disease.

The Breathonix test works by first getting a person to blow into a disposable mouthpiece connected to a high-precision breath sampler.

The exhaled breath is collected and fed into a cutting-edge mass spectrometer for measurement. Machine learning software analyses the VOC profile and generates the result in less than a minute.

Dr Shawn Vasoo, NCID clinical director, told The Straits Times that while the new breath test may serve as a screening test, a confirmatory PCR test will likely still be needed to diagnose Covid-19.

He said that although the breath test shows promise, more validation work needs to be done.

coronavirus