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COVID-19 breathalyzers being developed to detect those spreading the virus

Posted at 3:20 PM, Feb 17, 2021

Your breath is composed of hundreds of gases, which researchers can now tap into to tell you almost instantly if you're contagious with COVID-19.

“Breath is a window into the rest of the body,” said Doctor Mike Lynn, CEO of Hound Labs.

And it contains valuable information.

“Your breath has a lot of information from your body's response to particular conditions, including COVID-19,” said Dr. Mangilal Agarwal, Professor of Mechanical and Energy Engineering at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.

Using breath to detect things from alcohol to marijuana, low blood sugar in diabetics, and now COVID-19, is relatively new in the medical field.

Dr. Perena Gouma has been studying breath-based diagnostics for 20 years. She said she’s a pioneer in the industry. She’s been developing a breathalyzer to detect COVID-19.

“It’s a portable handheld breathalyzer and you exhale once, and in 15 seconds you have an answer,” said Dr. Gouma, an Ohio State University professor.

The device has selective gas sensors for detection.

“These chemicals we call the biomarkers, when they signal a particular disease or metabolic disorder,” Dr. Gouma said. “Mine says I’m going to look for a biomarker. I’m going to look for the biomarkers of COVID.”

Now, Dr. Gouma says the device is the first breath test submitted to the FDA, with an accuracy of 96%. But there’s more than one way to develop this idea. Another way is similar to how dogs can detect with their sense of smell.

It’s the idea behind Hound Labs.

“We measure substances that come out of breath, the actual substance itself, the molecular structure,” Dr. Mike Lynn said.

Hound Labs has been focusing on a cannabis breathalyzer, but recently worked on a COVID-19 breathalyzer as well.

“They blow through the device, there's a disposable cartridge that collects the breath in a very unique way, and that disposable cartridge is then what contains the viral samples that goes ultimately to PCR,” he explained.

The process is similar to how COVID-19 nasal swab PCR tests are processed in labs. Dr. Lynn said he noticed something interesting through the research.

“People who have positive nasal swabs don't necessarily have COVID-19 in their breath,” Dr. Lynn said. “On the other hand, those people that do have COVID-19 in breath, they are much much much more likely to spread it widely.”

Over time, he hopes to develop more data on this idea.

“There is so much that is unknown about super spreaders, about those that really transmit this disease widely whereas others transmit very, very little,” he said.

Researchers are hoping this breathalyzer concept is just another tool in the toolbox to better understand the spread of COVID-19 for both personal use and use in larger spaces.

“You can use it as a screening tool at airports, sporting events, schools,” Dr. Gouma explained.

“Breath research, there’s no question, it’s on the cusp of a revolution. What we can measure in breath now,” Dr. Lynn said.