Singaporean firm invents 60-second breathalyzer COVID-19 test

Photo: Victor He / Unsplash

A pilot clinical trial of a new breathalyzer COVID-19 test has shown more than 90% accuracy but it’s a long road ahead to commercial production and widespread use.

By Natasha Teja

A startup at the National University of Singapore (NUS) known as Breathonix has developed a breathalyzer test that claims to detect whether someone has COVID-19 within 60 seconds. Initial clinical trials achieved a 90% accuracy rate, opening the door for some of the fastest testing seen so far.

According to a university press release, participants were asked to blow into a disposable mouthpiece connected to a “high-precision breath sampler”. A mass spectrometer subsequently detected volatile organic compounds (VOC), generating a result.

“Different diseases cause specific changes to the compounds, resulting in detectable changes in a person’s breath profile,” Breathonix CEO Dr. Jia Zhunan explained to Channel News Asia. “As such, VOCs can be measured as markers for diseases like COVID-19.”

Currently, the standard swab tests for COVID-19 take several hours at minimum. Fast results and a less invasive process make the Breathonix test an attractive alternative for mass screenings in areas with high traffic.

Breathalyzer COVID-19 test not just fast but also cheap

PCR tests in Singapore are costly, from swabbing the patient to having the sample tested in a lab by a skilled molecular technician, with patients having to pay around US$200 (SGD$270). The Breathonix test is significantly cheaper at only US$20.

Nevertheless, patients will likely still need more sensitive tests such as PCR to confirm the diagnoses. “The breath test is more like a first-level screen device,” Jia told the South China Morning Post, adding that is more likely to be used at events such as conferences or concerts.

Singapore follows France with rapid breath test

Singapore’s experimentation with breathalyzer tests to detect COVID-19 is not entirely novel. In July, a hospital in Lyon, France started testing patients with a breathalyzer machine that generated results within seconds. The machine is currently in its second trial phase.

“We are pretty sure we are on the right track” in an interview with Radio France International,” said Christian George, director of France’s National Center of Scientific Research at Croix-Rousse.

“This type of quick test means we will have the results straightaway and can then move the patient to the right area of the hospital,” said Jean-Christophe Richard, head of intensive care at the hospital in Lyon where the machines have been tested, in an interview with Reuters. “As we now have a few efficient treatments, the quicker we can diagnose, the quicker we can treat them.”

Hopes for the tourism sector

Photo: Tim Dennert / Unsplash

For an international hub such as Singapore, the widespread public use of the breathalyzer test would present hope for a revival of the tourism sector.

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong expressed optimism in a statement in October. “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,” he said.

The deployment of rapid testing kits in transport hubs could be the key to restarting travel before a vaccine is widely available. Most recently, Singapore announced that it will reopen travel to Hong Kong via an air bubble commencing November 22. However, the process isn’t hassle-free.

Travelers intending to go to Hong Kong must first seek approval and then take a pre-departure COVID-19 test. If approved and travel goes ahead, passengers then have to undergo another PCR test upon arrival in Hong Kong. When travelling with a large family, the costs of the PCR tests could quickly add up.

Affordable and easy access to testing kits such as that from Breathonix may make travelling amidst the pandemic more accessible for those wishing to see loved ones or simply wanting a holiday. 

About the Author

Natasha Teja
Natasha is a British/Indonesian freelance writer based in Singapore. With a background in geopolitics, she is interested in writing about the current political and socioeconomic issues facing Asia.