Taking deep breaths is a well-worn tactic for calming daily anxieties, and, now, with Singapore’s approval of a breathalyzer test for COVID-19, a large exhale could help mitigate what is currently one of the world’s biggest stressors of all.
The country’s Health Sciences Authority granted provisional authorization to the BreFence Go COVID breath test from Breathonix, a local startup spun out of the National University of Singapore, making it the first breath analysis system to receive the go-ahead from the agency.
The test comprises a disposable single-use mouthpiece, a breath sampler and a mass spectrometer. Users exhale into the mouthpiece, with their breath being collected by the sampler. From there, the captured air is fed into the spectrometer and analyzed using Breathonix’s algorithm, which returns test results in less than one minute.
The system works by analyzing the volatile organic compounds in each exhaled breath to identify those that the algorithm has been trained to recognize as uniquely associated with the coronavirus.
Clinical trials conducted throughout the last year found that the breathalyzer test achieved 93% sensitivity and 95% specificity in screening 180 study participants for COVID-19.
Though the system can be processed outside of a formal lab setting and doesn’t have to be overseen by medical professionals, it still must be administered by trained personnel. The tests are sold for about $3.75 to $15, depending on how many are purchased at a time, according to a report from Reuters.
To start, Singapore’s Ministry of Health will use the BreFence Go system to test incoming travelers at the Tuas Checkpoint between Singapore and Malaysia, where a negative test is required to enter the city-state. Positive breathalyzer results will be verified with a swab-based rapid antigen test.
“The pandemic is likely to go on for several years. Mass, repeated testing has to be widely adopted as a key public health strategy to support the safe reopening of economies, and Breathonix’s home-grown technology hits the right spot,” said Freddy Boey, who serves as a university adviser to the startup as NUS' deputy president of innovation and enterprise.
Boey added, “I’m confident that their novel technology will make a significant contribution towards protecting the safety and health of Singaporeans and the global community.”
Breathonix initially spun out of the National University of Singapore to develop breath testing technology to detect cancer. Founded in late 2019, the startup began by developing an algorithm that could detect volatile organic compounds related to lung cancer, nasopharyngeal cancer and tuberculosis.
“We are proud to play a part in Singapore’s fight against COVID-19 by turning our cancer detection technology into a system that rapidly screens for the coronavirus. After months of hard work, we are delighted that the BreFence Go COVID-19 breath test system is now ready to be deployed to protect the nation,” said Du Fang, chief operating officer and co-founder of Breathonix.