Singaporean scientists have developed a new 'breathalyzer' test for COVID that can detect the virus within one minute

·4 min read
Breathonix breathalyzer
The Breathonix breath test for COVID was tested in clinical trials at three locations, where it picked up COVID cases accurately within 60 seconds of the test. Breathonix
  • Scientists in Singapore have developed a breathalyzer-style test for COVID-19.

  • During clinical trials, the device was able to accurately detect COVID-19 within one minute.

  • The researchers are deploying the system in further trials at Singapore's Tuas land checkpoint.

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Researchers have developed a potentially game-changing breathalyzer-style test for COVID, which can detect the virus within one minute.

The testing system was developed by a team of Singaporean researchers and involves a person breathing normally into a disposable, one-way mouthpiece - similar to how one would be tested for drunk driving.

This mouthpiece is connected to a breath sampler that is linked to a mass spectrometer, a device that can observe invisible compounds in a person's exhaled breath. The machine then analyzes the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) - particles produced by biochemical reactions in human cells - in the breath sample to plot a "breath signature."

According to the researchers at Breathonix, the start-up behind the device, a healthy person's breath will register a different VOC signature from that of a person with COVID. These signatures will help testers differentiate quickly between healthy people and those with the virus. The software will compare the fresh sample with what a COVID-positive "breath signature" looks like.

The device is called the BreFence Go COVID-19 Breath Test System, and it's able to yield results within 60 seconds. For positive cases, a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) swab test will then be carried out to confirm the results.

During the clinical trials, the system was tested on over 3,000 people, with an accuracy rate of over 90%.

Singapore's Health Sciences Authority is now working with Breathonix to deploy this device alongside the antigen rapid test at the country's Tuas land checkpoint which connects Singapore to Malaysia.

Cheaper, faster testing

The widespread use of this breathalyzer-style device could make waves on the COVID-19 testing landscape. Currently, swab tests like the PCR test and the antigen rapid test (ART) are the clinically recognized means for COVID testing, with PCR tests being the gold standard.

However, these tests are often uncomfortable and invasive, as they involve swabs being inserted into the nose and throat to obtain samples. The time taken to get COVID test results also varies between 20 to 30 minutes (for the ART) and several hours (for the PCR test).

Breathonix was founded by three National University of Singapore graduates, Jia Zhunan, Du Fang, and Wayne Wee Shi Jie, along with Jia's Ph.D. advisor at the university, professor T. Venky Venkatesan.

The researchers told Insider that each test would cost between SG$5 to SG$20 (between $3.70 and $15), a significant price reduction in comparison to the PCR and antigen tests, which cost between S$30 (around $22) and S$50 (around $37).

Du, co-founder and chief operating officer of Breathonix, told Insider that a plus point of their testing system is that it does not require medically trained personnel to administer it - unlike the PCR and antigen tests, where healthcare workers are needed to swab people.

Fast COVID tests could be vital to help countries open their borders

covid test us
People stand in line at a clinic in Long Beach, California offering quick coronavirus testing for a fee, on Monday, June 29, 2020. Brittany Murray/MediaNews Group/Long Beach Press-Telegram via Getty Images

Most countries require a negative COVID test for entry, so a wider commercial application of this quick breathalyzer test for COVID could help to open up the worldwide business and leisure travel sector in the months to come.

The group has connected with the government about possibly deploying the test at Changi Airport later this year.

Du added that for low-risk countries, breath tests might one day be sufficient for travelers to enter Singapore.

"The test will save travelers the trouble of doing an expensive PCR test. In the long run, this test could help to open our borders, but that will be up to the government's assessment of the situation, and the risk-mitigation measures they implement," he said.

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