Singapore develops 60-second breath test to detect COVID-19

20 October 2020: The National University of Singapore (NUS) develops a “high-precision breath sampler”, to detect COVID-19 in 60 seconds.

Developed by NUS start-up Breathonix, the breath test system uses a disposable mouthpiece to prevent cross-contamination, and can detect COVID-19 in less than a minute. (Photo: National University of Singapore)

SINGAPORE: Researchers in Singapore have developed a breath test to detect COVID-19 within a minute, said the National University of Singapore (NUS) on Tuesday (Oct 20).

The test, which detects volatile organic compounds (VOC) in a person’s breath, achieved more than 90 per cent accuracy in a clinical trial involving 180 patients. 

A person testing for COVID-19 would simply have to blow into a disposable mouthpiece connected to a “high-precision breath sampler”, said the university in a media release.

The exhaled breath is then collected and fed into a mass spectrometer for measurement.

A machine learning software subsequently analyses the VOC profile and generates the result in less than a minute.

The technology, developed by NUS start-up Breathonix, “offers a fast and convenient solution to identify COVID-19 infection”, said the university. 

VOCs are consistently produced by various biochemical reactions in human cells, explained Breathonix CEO Dr Jia Zhunan.

“Different diseases cause specific changes to the compounds, resulting in detectable changes in a person’s breath profile. As such, VOCs can be measured as markers for diseases like COVID-19.”

The firm’s chief operating officer Mr Du Fang added that the system’s disposable mouthpiece has a one-way valve and a saliva trap which prevents inhalation and any saliva from entering the machine.

“This makes cross-contamination unlikely,” said Mr Du.

Breathonix is founded by Dr Jia Zhunan (left) and Mr Du Fang (middle). With them is Deputy President (Innovation and Enterprise) Freddy Boey (right). (Photo: National University of Singapore)

RESULTS GENERATED IN REAL TIME  

Results from the breath test are generated in real time, said Dr Jia. He said that this made it an attractive solution for mass screening, especially in areas with high human traffic.

“Our breath test is easy to administer and it does not require specially trained staff or laboratory processing,” he added.

Currently, standard COVID-19 screening involves a swab test, which may be uncomfortable, and diagnosis using polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests can take a few hours.

Collaborating with the National Centre for Infectious Diseases, Breathonix carried out a pilot clinical trial involving 180 patients.

The test, which uses in-built machine learning algorithms, achieved more than 90 per cent accuracy, with 93 per cent sensitivity. 

It also detected with 95 per cent specificity – correctly identifying those without the disease.

The clinical trial is ongoing and more tests are required to further improve the accuracy of the technology, said NUS.

The test could be deployed in airports to facilitate the recovery of the tourism sector, as well as in places with high human traffic such as dormitories, the university said. 

Earlier in October, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said some of the rapid COVID-19 test kits under evaluation are showing “promising” results

He also said that Singapore hopes to deploy alternative testing methods in the months ahead.

“Increased testing facilitated by such rapid test kits, coupled with strengthened containment efforts including contact tracing, and adherence to appropriate safe management measures, have potential to allow us to resume more activities, including travel-related industries and larger-scale events,” said Mr Gan in a written parliamentary reply.

“We hope to be able to deploy some of these alternative tests in the months ahead, as we work out practical ways to incorporate such rapid testing into our national COVID-19 response.”

Source: CNA/ad(hs)