New coronavirus breather test gives the result instantly — but it’s not ready yet

The approach could offer a much-needed alternative to PCR tests, although it hasn’t been confirmed in a large-scale trial yet.

The breathalyzer test. Image credits: Breathonix.

All around the world, countries are looking for alternatives to the PCR test. It’s not so much the accuracy of the PCR test that’s a problem (though it’s not perfect), it’s not even the invasiveness (the test itself can be annoying), but rather the resources it requires. PCR tests are expensive, in short demand, and you need to have specialized equipment and well-trained personnel.

This is why, in many parts of the world, tests are in short demand. Having access to a new type of test, ideally one that doesn’t require exactly the same resources, would be very helpful.

Breathonix, a start-up from the National University of Singapore, has recently presented exactly that: a quick and cheap test. At $20, Breathonix says its test would be 70% cheaper than PCR tests.

It works like this: the patient blows into the device (there’s a changeable mouthpiece to avoid cross-contamination), and the device assesses the chemical compounds of the breath, generating the results within 60 seconds. The device uses mass spectrometry to look for the bio-fingerprint not just of COVID-19, but also other diseases

Using the cutting-edge mass spectrometry, Breathonix is able to discern hundreds of VOCs in the molecular level (i.e. parts per billion) to generate the bio-fingerprint of COVID-19 and other diseases. 

It all sounds really good, but there are a couple of issues. For starters, it’s not as accurate as PCR tests. A 90% detection rate sounds pretty good, but it’s not good enough to use as a reliable test. This doesn’t mean it can’t be used — it can be very useful as a preliminary survey, its creators say.

“The breath test is more like a first level screen device,” said Jia Zhunan, co-founder and CEO of Breathonix. For instance, it could be deployed at conferences, sports events and concerts.

Breathonix isn’t the only team developing this type of test — it’s an avenue pursued by several research teams, in particular one team from France which presented preliminary results earlier this year. However, neither the Singaporean nor the French study are ready to be used by the wider public yet. Breathonix has so far carried a clinical trial on 180 people and hopes to gain regulatory approval early next year.

It’s not clear when the French breathalyzer test would become available, but experts have expressed concerns that it could be too costly to be used on a wide scale.

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