The Singapore government has approved the use of a breath test designed to detect COVID-19 and give accurate results within one minute, the National University of Singapore said in a statement.
The test, developed by NUS spin-off startup Breathonix, works much like a standard breathalyzer test that police might use to see if an erratic driver is drunk. A person blows into a one-way valve mouthpiece, and compounds in the person’s breath - think of it as a breath signature - are compared by machine-learning software to the sort of breath signature expected from someone who’s COVID-positive.
Breathonix was founded by two NUS graduates, Dr Jia Zhunan and Du Fang, and is supported by the NUS Graduate Research Innovation Programme (GRIP), a scheme that encourages the University’s talented graduate students and research staff to establish and run high potential start-ups based on deep technologies.
Accurate tests at that speed could be key to unlocking a travel sector that’s crucial for Singapore’s economy but has slowed to a crawl during the pandemic. Even as the US and parts of Europe begin to reopen with higher viral caseloads, Singapore and other “COVID-Zero" countries in Asia have been hesitant to open borders and have cracked down harshly on any sign of flare-ups.
The breathalysers “may potentially facilitate opening the borders in the longer run, but of course that’s up to the ministry’s assessment," said Du Fang, the company’s chief operating officer. Travelers from countries defined as low-risk “can just simply do a breath test, and then they can easily enter into Singapore and we can open the borders to those green countries sooner."
The Breathonix test so far has undergone two clinical trials in Singapore and another in Dubai. It achieved a sensitivity of 93% and specificity of 95% in one early Singapore-based pilot study that involved 180 patients.
Singapore will use the breathalyzers in a deployment trial to screen some incoming travelers from Malaysia, the Straits Times reported. Anyone who tests positive in the breath test would be screened in a confirmatory PCR swab test.
Rapid identification of individuals who are COVID-19 positive is crucial for contact tracing and helps to reduce virus transmission. The current gold standard for COVID-19 screening involves a swab test, which may be uncomfortable, and diagnosis using polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests can take a few hours.
The tests will sell for SGD 5 (USD 3.80) to SGD 20 (USD 15.20) each, Du Fang said.