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Updated 17 March 2021

Since the advent of the pandemic, mass testing has been widely adopted as a critical public health strategy to detect and prevent infections. Apart from PCR and laser-based Diffractive Phase Interferometry (DPI) testing for Covid-19, health authorities in the UAE use at least six different testing methodologies to detect the coronavirus.

A test that can detect if an individual has Covid-19 using a breath sample is being trialed in Dubai as a potential, faster alternative to the more uncomfortable nasal swab PCR.

How does it work?

In the test, a person only needs to blow into a disposable mouthpiece connected to a high-precision breath sampler. The exhaled breath is collected into a breath sampler and fed into a mass spectrometer for measurement. A machine learning software analyses the volatile organic compound (VOC) profile and generates the result in less than a minute.

VOCs are consistently produced by various biochemical reactions in human cells. Different diseases cause specific changes to the compounds, resulting in detectable changes in a person’s breath profile. As such, VOCs can be measured as markers for diseases like COVID-19.

The joint clinical trial for the breath test is being undertaken by Mohammad Bin Rashid University of Medicine and Health Sciences (MBRU), Dubai Health Authority (DHA) and Breathonix Pte Ltd. The trials are being conducted at DHA’s Nadd Al Hamar primary health care centre for 2,500 patients.

How efficient is it?

Breathonix, a spin-off company from the National University of Singapore (NUS), has developed this test. Breathonix said that a Singapore-based pilot study involving 180 patients achieved a sensitivity of 93 percent and specificity of 95 percent with a machine learning algorithm.

This technology is certainly up-and-coming, particularly because the diagnosis speed is just 60 seconds per patient. This kind of rapid diagnosis has the potential to be a game-changer in the global fight against COVID-19.

If approved and implemented, this technology will significantly reduce the burden on laboratory processing. It will drastically reduce the time taken to get the results in comparison to the presently available testing methods such as a Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test. The breath test for screening COVID-19 is highly efficient for mass screening especially in areas of high-traffic.