Gov’t Approves COVID-19 Breath Test that Gives Immediate Results

A breath test developed to identify coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) and provide reliable findings in less than a minute has been approved for use in Singapore, according to a statement from the National University of Singapore.

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The test, created by NUS spin-off Breathonix, functions similarly to a standard breathalyser test that police would use to determine if an erratic driver is drunk. An individual blows into a one-way valve mouthpiece, and the compounds in their breath — think of it as a breath signature — are compared by machine learning algorithms to the type of breath signature expected from a COVID-positive person.

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According to The Straits Times, Singapore will test incoming Malaysian travellers at the Tuas Checkpoint on the island’s western side as part of a deployment trial of the breathalysers. Anyone who passes the breath test will be subjected to a confirmatory PCR swab test. This breath examination will take place in addition to the existing mandatory Covid-19 antigen rapid test (ART).

How it Works

ARTs yield results in about 30 minutes and can be performed on-site, whereas polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, which are considered the gold standard for testing, take many hours. Swabs for PCR analyses must also be shipped to labs.

An individual simply exhales into a disposable one-way-valved mouthpiece connected to a breath sampler for the new BreFence Go COVID-19 Breath Test System.

The invisible particles known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in exhaled breath are analysed using a mass spectrometer.

A healthy person’s VOC signature differs from that of a sick person, and various illnesses generate different signatures.

From breath sampling to results, the total time is less than a minute.

Any individual who has a positive breathalyser result must have a confirmatory PCR swab test.

Accurate testing at high speeds may be crucial in reviving a travel industry that has slowed to a halt due to the pandemic. Even as the United States and parts of Europe reopen with higher viral caseloads, Singapore and other “COVID-Zero” Asian countries have been reluctant to open borders and have cracked down hard on any sign of flare-ups.

So far, the Breathonix test has been subjected to three clinical trials, two in Singapore and one in Dubai. One early Singapore-based pilot study involving 180 patients achieved a sensitivity of 93% and a specificity of 95%.

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