A company in Singapore has developed an alcohol test for Covid-19, which it claims can lead to a result in less than a minute.
Breathonix, a spin-off start-up from the National University of Singapore, also claims that its test was 90 percent accurate in a small study of 180 people.
She hopes to get the green light from regulators early next year to use the test to diagnose people with the disease.
The test looks for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) – chemicals in breath that are released by diseased cells in the body.
Breathonix, a startup from the National University of Singapore, has developed an alcohol test for Covid-19, which it claims can lead to a result in less than a minute. It is still in the prototype stage (picture)
After a person blows into the device, which is attached to a sampler that evaluates chemical compounds in the breath
Breathonix is currently expanding its study across Singapore and is hoping to improve the accuracy of its test before it launches early next year.
The accuracy rate was determined in a pilot study with 180 volunteers at the National Center for Infectious Diseases (NCID).
Among the participants, almost 50 had tested positive for the coronavirus. The test accurately diagnosed more than nine in 10 Covid-19 patients.
HOW COULD A BREATHALYST TEST WORK?
Research shows that the breath contains valuable biological information, also known as biomarkers, that can indicate health and illness.
Breathalyzer testers are a non-invasive, fast and inexpensive alternative to the current coronavirus swab tests.
However, alcohol testing technology has struggled to tell precisely enough which virus a person is carrying.
And the accuracy of a standard Covid-19 swab test is unmatched – although it is not perfect and can lead to incorrect results.
Breathalyzers have the potential to examine people en masse in places like airports, sporting events, or conferences, say the makers. If someone were to be flagged as a potential case, they could run a more robust PCR test to confirm the infection.
An alcohol test can be developed using one of several different technologies.
It can look for polyamino acids, viral particles that are exhaled in saliva.
In isothermal tests, the virus genome is examined in a breath or saliva sample. Sterghios Moschos, a molecular biologist at Northumbria University who does an alcohol test, said it was most likely to work in differentiating viruses.
Another technology is based on Terra Hertz waves. It can detect how the virus substance vibrates – which would be different from other viruses.
Some breathalyzers look for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) – chemicals in the breath (or urine, sweat, or blood) that are released by diseased cells in the body.
VOCs are also what disease-detecting sniffer dogs can detect to help diagnose people. They are currently being trained in the UK and elsewhere in the world to identify Covid-19 related VOCs.
The breath test also has a specificity rate of 95 percent – which means that it gave a correct “negative” result 95 percent of the time. Five percent of people without the disease were mistakenly classified as positive.
The researchers hope to recruit up to 600 patients over the next few months for validation of the product, which is still in the prototype stage.
Breathonix claims its test is 70 percent cheaper at £ 15 ($ 20) than PCR tests, which are used around the world to swab people for the coronavirus.
And the breath test is easy to perform without the need for specially trained personnel or laboratory processing, unlike PCR tests, which can take days to complete.
However, infected patients would likely still need to perform a sensitive PCR test to confirm the breath test result, as the accuracy is currently lower.
Therefore, the breath test acts more as a screening tool to identify people with possible infections who may need more rigorous testing.
Breathonix co-founder and chief executive Jia Zhunan said it could be used at conferences, sporting events and concerts – all of which were stopped during the pandemic if they were to become “super-spreader” events.
“The breath test is more like a first-level screen device,” said Zhunan.
“Results are generated in real time, which makes it an attractive solution for mass screening, especially in high-traffic areas,” he told Straits Times.
The NUS graduate is confident that the breath test could play a crucial role in the fight against the coronavirus in Singapore, which has so far recorded 58,000 cases but only 28 deaths.
The device uses disposable mouthpieces to ensure there is no cross contamination.
Suspicious patients blow into the device, which is connected to a sampling machine that examines the breath to look for unique compounds emitted by Covid patients.
Volatile organic compounds (VOC) are released from the body through the breath, blood, urine and sweat.
The compounds are released by diseased cells in the body and differ depending on the type of illness a person has.
VOCs can also be detected by trained sniffer dogs who can help report diseases such as cancer and Parkinson’s. They are currently being trained in the UK and elsewhere in the world to identify Covid-19 related VOCs.
“This leads to noticeable changes in a person’s breathing profile,” said Zhunan. “As such, VOCs can be measured as markers for diseases like Covid-19.”
The results are generated by a computer within 60 seconds.
A similar breathalyzer is being tested by a hospital in France, although experts have warned that the system may be too expensive for widespread use because it is a machine rather than a portable device.
In Israel, developers of a “promising” little alcohol test say it can give results in 30 seconds.
NanoScent, the company that makes test kits, said an extensive study of the presence of live viruses produced results with an accuracy of 85 percent. However, managing director Oren Gavriely also believes the breathalyzer would only be used as a screening tool.
Nadav Davidovitch, a public health expert at Ben Gurion University in Beersheba, Israel, said the test was “very promising”.
Northumbria University scientists are currently developing a breathalyzer test that they previously said could be in mass production by Christmas. And scientists at the University of Tasmania are testing a similar device.
Countries around the world are looking for alternative tests to the PCR nasal swab, which is invasive, expensive and requires a laboratory technician to read it.
Another method that shows promise is the spit test, one of the many rapid test technologies being tested by the UK government.
Saliva-based tests are being tested on people in Southampton and Salford, Greater Manchester.
Nearly 10,000 people took part in the first phase of the Southampton pilot, where “the saliva sampling kit for the home was a reliable means of testing for regular large-scale testing”.
If it turns out to work, it would help carry out the government’s £ 100 billion “Operation Moon Shot,” which promises to increase daily testing by twelve fold by early next year to give the country its “freedom” return.
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