Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center announced the creation of a breathalyzer-like device that can be used to identify if a patient is positive for COVID-19.
This and other groundbreaking developments in COVID-19 testing methods could prove invaluable in our efforts to return to pre-pandemic social life.
Dr. Pelagia-Irene (Perena) Gouma, a professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at OSU, is one of the two researchers behind this new device.
Already, the progress made in combating COVID-19 has been immense. Most recently, Pfizer signed a deal to sell its anti-Covid pills, Paxlovid, to the U.S. government for $5.3 billion.
“This novel breathalyzer technology uses nanosensors to identify and measure specific biomarkers in the breath,” said Gouma. “This is the first study to demonstrate the use of a nanosensor breathalyzer system to detect a viral infection from exhaled breath prints.”
The lead researcher on the project, Dr. Matthew Exline, added, “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. The breathalyzer test used in our study can detect COVID-19 within seconds.”
Breathalyzer can detect COVID-19 better than PCR tests
The study followed 46 patients in intensive care units, all of whom required mechanical ventilation. Researchers collected bags containing the exhaled respirations from these patients at steady intervals during their hospitalization.
While PCR tests often miss COVID-19 infections and give false positives, this non-invasive breath test technology can pick up the infection early, as early as within 72 hours of the onset of respiratory failure. Furthermore, the breathalyzer had 88% accuracy in identifying COVID-19 in the patients.
According to Exline and Gouma, the breath tests, which can identify COVID-19 in patients by observing how the virus reacts with oxygen, nitric oxide, and ammonia in a person’s body, can pinpoint the disease within 15 seconds, in stark contrast with the PCR test that can take days.
The speed and accuracy of the breath test leads Dr. Gouma to envision a safer return to socialization, one that is reminiscent of pre-pandemic days.
“Imagine in every school or every retail store, sports stadium, any place, athletics venue or restaurant, if the individual has this tool they can just (test themselves) just before going there, just before meeting relatives, and they know if they are well or not,” Gouma told interviewers from WOSU 89.7 NPR. “That’s the potential of this technology.”
Testing at home rather than a testing center
Gouma also predicts that the device could allow people to quickly test themselves rather than going to a testing center, which would benefit everyone from travelers to students.
The results from the initial study in patients was published on October 28, 2021 in the journal PLOS ONE. The research team has proceeded with applying to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for emergency use authorization of the breathalyzer technology, hoping that it will soon be available over the counter in drugstores throughout the country.
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