Researchers at Ohio State University were able to develop a breath test for COVID-19 that can detect infection in a matter of seconds. The basis of the test is a unique “respiratory footprint” of COVID-19 that researchers have identified, and this includes a specific combination of oxygen, nitric oxide, and ammonia in the breath.
At this stage of the pandemic, many people have undergone a COVID-19 test, and testing remains a key tool for tracking and containing the virus. While PCR testing is still the gold standard method for detecting the virus, rapid testing methods have their place and usually involve a small sacrifice of accuracy to increase convenience and speed. As we learn to live with the virus, techniques that allow rapid detection will increase demand and researchers are facing the challenge of developing new technologies.
This latter approach involves using breathing as a means of rapid, noninvasive testing. “The gold standard for the diagnosis of COVID-19 is a PCR test that requires an awkward nasal swab and time in a laboratory to process the sample and get the results,” said Dr. Matthew Exline, a researcher involved in the study. “The blood alcohol test used in our study can detect COVID-19 in a matter of seconds.”
The airway is the main site of COVID-19 infection and therefore it seems intuitive that it may leave revealing signs in our breath. To discern the unique hallmark of COVID-19 in respiration, the researchers assessed the exhaled breath of 46 ICU patients, 23 of whom had COVID-19. The researchers collected exhaled breath samples for several days and then analyzed them using a system of nanosensors they have developed.
“This new breathalyzer technology uses nanosensors to identify and measure breath-specific biomarkers,” Pelagia-Irene Gouma said. “This is the first study to demonstrate the use of a nanosensory blood alcohol system to detect a viral infection from exhaled respiratory prints.”
The researchers identified a respiratory fingerprint of COVID-19 that included a high concentration of exhaled nitric oxide. This characteristic breath profile was useful in identifying COVID-19 in patients and demonstrated 88% accuracy.
“PCR testing often misses early COVID-19 infections and results can be positive after the infection has resolved,” Exline said. “However, this non-invasive breath testing technology can detect early COVID-19 infection within 72 hours of the onset of respiratory failure, allowing us to quickly examine patients in a single step and exclude those without COVID-19 with mechanical ventilation “.