Nov. 2, 2021 – A breathalyzer may be able diagnose COVID-19 faster, for less money while being less invasive, although a new study shows it may not be as accurate as traditional testing methods.

In the study, researchers used a breath test to diagnose COVID-19 in critically ill patientsThe study was published online last week in the journal PLOS ONE.

Lead author Matthew Exline, MD, a lung and critical care expert at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, and colleagues write, "The 'breath print' identified patients with COVID-19 pneumonia with 88% accuracy upon their admission to the ICU."

Diagnosis took only 15 seconds, the authors say.

The study included 46 ICU) patients on ventilators.. Of those, 23 had active COVID-19, and 23 did not have COVID but were also on life support. The patients who did not have COVID-19 served as controls for the study. Breath samples were collected on days 1, 3, 7, and 10 or until the patient was removed from the ventilator.

The breathalyzer detected high concentrations of a gas pattern distinctive for patients with active COVID-19 pneumonia.

Faster, Cheaper Than the Gold Standard

Exline says that although the 88% accuracy is lower the gold standard molecular tests the FDA has approved, the breath test is much faster and cheaper and is less invasive. The FDA-approved molecular tests are typically reported to have an accuarcy of 99%.

Results from PCR nasal probe tests can take many hours, Exline says. Also, results of the molecular tests have often continued to be positive after the infection passed.

Exline's co-author for the study, Perena Gouma, PhD, chair in ceramic engineering at OSU, began working on the breathalyzer long before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Researchers decided to test the device on patients in the ICU, because these patients could be followed over time, and it was known that they had severe COVID-19. Researchers were blinded to which patients had COVID-19 and which patients were controls.

The researchers are also testing to see whether the breathalyzer can detect COVID-19 in patients who have less severe disease. The patients in that study are outpatients currently at OSU, Exline says.

"We see this as a technology that could in the future be a new, novel way of detecting disease [in addition to] COVID," he says.

Other Breath Test in the Works

It is not the only research happening on whether breathalyzers can be used to detect more than blood alcohol levels. Researchers at the University of Colorado are also studying their use to detect other diseases.

Several centers around the world are working on the technology. Exline says, "To our knowledge, no one has a commercially viable breathalyzer."

He said the advantage of the breathalyzer Gouma designed is that "[w]e would have the ability to change the molecule we're detecting pretty quickly" if COVID-19 eventually changed signatures.

The Netherlands rolled out its version of a rapid breath test, called SpiroNose, earlier this year. With that device, people breathe into a machine. The device can indicate a possible coronavirus infection within a minute, Reuters reports. Patients who test positive then take a PCR test to confirm the diagnosis.

At the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Audrey Odom John, MD, PhD, and colleagues have identified biomarkers in children's breath that are unique to children with COVID-19.

Their findings were published this year in ACS Infectious Diseases. John is a co-inventor on a preliminary patent for coronavirus biomarkers.

Researchers at Rutgers University, in Newark, NJ, are working on a breathalyzer t they hope will yield a COVID-19 diagnosis in 10 minutes.

Two startups in Singapore have developed breath tests for COVID-19 that reportedly produce results in less than 2 minutes. According toNikkei Asia, the tests are designed to be used at large events and for border control.