Researchers at Ohio State University managed to develop a breath test for COVID-19 that can spot the infection within seconds. The basis for the test is a unique ‘breath print’ of COVID-19 that the researchers have identified, and this includes a specific combination of oxygen, nitric oxide, and ammonia in the breath.
At this stage in the pandemic, many people have undergone a COVID-19 test, and testing remains a key tool in tracking and containing the virus. While PCR tests remain the gold standard method for detecting the virus, rapid testing methods have their place and typically involve a small sacrifice in accuracy for a big increase in convenience and speed. As we learn to live alongside the virus, techniques that allow for rapid screening will be in increased demand, and researchers are rising to the challenge by developing new technologies.
This latest approach involves using the breath as a non-invasive and rapid testing medium. “The gold standard for diagnosis of COVID-19 is a PCR test that requires an uncomfortable nasal swab and time in a lab to process the sample and obtain the results,” said Dr. Matthew Exline, a researcher involved in the study. “The breathalyzer test used in our study can detect COVID-19 within seconds.”
The airway is the primary site of COVID-19 infection, and so it seems to be intuitive that it might leave tell-tale signs in our breath. To discern the unique hallmark of COVID-19 in the breath, the researchers assessed the exhaled breath of 46 ICU patients, 23 of which had COVID-19. The researchers collected exhaled breath samples on several days, and then analyzed them using a nanosensor system they have developed.
“This novel breathalyzer technology uses nanosensors to identify and measure specific biomarkers in the breath,” said Pelagia-Irene Gouma. “This is the first study to demonstrate the use of a nanosensor breathalyzer system to detect a viral infection from exhaled breath prints.”
The researchers identified a breath fingerprint of COVID-19 that included a high exhaled nitric oxide concentration. This hallmark breath profile was useful in identifying COVID-19 in the patients and demonstrated 88% accuracy.
“PCR tests often miss early COVID-19 infections and results can be positive after the infection has resolved,” said Exline. “However, this noninvasive breath test technology can pick up early COVID-19 infection within 72 hours of the onset of respiratory failure, allowing us to rapidly screen patients in a single step and exclude those without COVID-19 on mechanical ventilation.”