Laura Hamilton says her latest coronavirus test was ‘unpleasant’

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As the world learns to live with COVID-19, more and more people are having to test on a regular basis. This usually involves some form of throat and nose swap, which many find irritating, or even painful in some cases. But this could soon be a thing of the past as researchers hail the potential for breath-based diagnosis.

Oliver Gould, from the University of the West of England, told Chemical & Engineering News: “It has the potential to serve as a replacement for highly invasive tests.

“Replace those with a breath sample, and uptake will be superior.”

Since May, passengers crossing into Singapore at the Tuas Checkpoint have been providing breath samples to a tes developed by Breathonix.

Each driver rolls down their window and exhales into a large, disposable, cigar-sized mouthpiece connected to a mass spectrometer.

In less than 60 seconds their breath sample is analysed to determine whether they have COVID-19.

This is because COVID-19 triggers a series of metabolic changes that alter the ratios of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in exhaled breath.

The raised or lowered levels of compounds can determine if someone has an infection and what pathogen might be causing it.

Now many more companies are following suit.

Scitech Medical, TeraGroup and Owlstone Medical in the UK have all laughed breathalyser-like tests to detect COVID-19.

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Researchers in Indonesia have also created a COVID-19 breath test called GeNose C19.

They could be particularly useful for ass-screening opportunities at large public events and border crossings due to their speed and low cost, according to Paul Thomas, director of the Centre for Analytical Science at Loughborough University.

But some are questioning whether the technology is sensitive enough yet.

Diagnosing COVID-19 requires measuring how much the VOCs in someone’s breath deviate from the norm, but researchers have yet to define the levels of these compounds in the breath of healthy people.

The Dutch government halted use of a device called SpiroNose, developed by the Netherlands-based Breathomix, at several testing sites around Amsterdam after just a few days.

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It came after a non-peer-reviewed article published in February initially looked promising – SpiroNose distinguished between 35 samples from people who tested positive for COVID-19 via polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and the 869 who were negative.

But real-life findings were more disappointing.

In the first few days of its use by public health officials, the SpiroNose reportedly failed to detect infection in 25 individuals, some of whom were ultimately hospitalized.

In media statements, Breathomix attributed the discrepancies to user error.

But as the Delta variant has swept around the world, the need for rapid testing is said to be more important than ever before.

Breath testing’s low cost and rapid turnaround could make it perfectly poised to fill a crucial niche.

University of Miami’s Roy Weiss said: “It has the potential to really change pandemic response.”

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