An experimental Breathalyzer-type test can detect COVID-19 within seconds and could become a noninvasive, faster alternative to nasal swab tests, researchers report.
COVID-19 infection produces a distinct breath print from the interaction of oxygen, nitric oxide and ammonia in the body, the investigators said. An initial study of the breath test found that it accurately identified COVID-19 infections in almost 9 of 10 critically ill patients with the disease.
The test can detect COVID-19 in exhaled breath within 15 seconds, according to the team that developed it. They've applied to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for emergency use authorization of the new technology.
Their study included 46 intensive care patients with acute respiratory failure who required mechanical ventilation. All of the patients had a PCR COVID-19 (nasal swab) test when they were admitted to the ICU, and half were found to have COVID-19.
The researchers collected exhaled breath bags from all of the patients on day 1, 3, 7 and 10 of their hospitalization, and used the new breath test on the samples within four hours after collection.
The test was 88% accurate in detecting the breath print of COVID-19, according to the study published Oct. 28 in the journal PLOS ONE.
"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 lead researcher Dr. Matthew Exline, director of critical care at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
"This novel [Breathalyzer-type] technology uses nanosensors to identify and measure specific biomarkers in the breath," said test co-developer Pelagia-Irene Gouma, a professor in Ohio State's Department of Materials Science and Engineering and Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.
"This is the first study to demonstrate the use of a nanosensor [Breathalyzer-type] system to detect a viral infection from exhaled breath prints," Gouma noted in an Ohio State news release.
"PCR tests often miss early COVID-19 infections and results can be positive after the infection has resolved," Exline said in the release. "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."
The researchers also plan to assess the use of the technology to detect less severe COVID-19, as well as other infections and diseases.