MAY 24, 2023 5:00 PM PDT

New Breathalyzer Detects COVID

WRITTEN BY: Ryan Vingum

A collaboration between researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder (UCB) and the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST) has yielded a new device that could help detect COVID-19 infection with a simple breath sample. The new device is described in a recent article published in the Journal of Breath Research.

The ability to detect, diagnose, and subsequently trace COVID-19 infection emerged as a pressing problem early on in the global COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers sought to develop a test that was at once quick, easy to distribute and provide access to, and, most importantly, accurate. The new device developed by UC and NIST researchers has the ability to offer all of these things. Specifically, the device is a breathalyzer tool designed to detect COVID-19 infection from the molecules someone expels when breathing. The device, a frequency comb breathalyzer, uses lasers and mirrors to analyze the molecules collected from a person’s breath. The lasers bounce off the molecules and mirrors to develop a robust reading about a person’s health, including whether they have COVID-19 infection. Then, depending on how the laser light moves or is absorbed by molecules in a sample, a machine learning tool can analyze the data and draw conclusions about a person’s health.

This approach checks two of the boxes: it’s easy to use and access, and it can provide a result rapidly.

But is it effective?

To test the tool, researchers worked with college students during the COVID-19 pandemic. They used the breathalyzer to collect breath samples from college students who had recently had a PCR test for COVID-19 performed. About half the participants included in the study had a positive PCR test, and the other half were negative.

When the breath samples were run through the machine learning tool, researchers were surprised to see that the device correctly analyzed breath results and matched the PCR results 85% of the time, a promising result.

While the device was investigated for use with COVID-19 infection, researchers are hopeful about the tool’s future uses. The ability to analyze a person’s breath, with the right data, could reveal a wealth of information about a person’s underlying health.  

Sources: Medgadget; Journal of Breath Research

About the Author
Master's (MA/MS/Other)
Science writer and editor, with a focus on simplifying complex information about health, medicine, technology, and clinical drug development for a general audience.
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