A new Chinese-developed technology can return novel coronavirus test results within five to 10 minutes with a simple exhalation of breath, eliminating uncomfortable throat or nostril swabs and long waits.
According to a study published recently in the Journal of Breath Research, an academic journal based in the United Kingdom, Chinese scientists and researchers have developed a noninvasive rapid screening test for COVID-19 by analyzing breath-borne compounds.
The technology was developed by a team led by Yao Maosheng, a professor at Peking University's College of Environmental Sciences and Technology, together with colleagues from the center for disease control and prevention in Beijing's Chaoyang district.
The research team has applied for a national patent for the new system.
Yao said that because SARS-CoV-2 infection causes changes in metabolism, the composition of exhaled breath of COVID-19 patients was different from that of others.
He said that analysis of 12 key organic compounds could discriminate COVID-19 from other subjects with 91 to 100 percent accuracy.
To take the test, people only have to exhale into a disposable plastic bag for 30 seconds or less. Compared with nucleic acid tests, such screening is cheaper and faster.
"Experiments with recruited subjects have proved that the system is effective," Yao said. "It's fast, and sensitive enough.
"Now we need to test more breath samples for the system to go from the experimental stage to clinical application."
He said their published work involved 74 COVID-19 patients, 30 patients with non-COVID-19 respiratory infections and 87 medical workers and healthy people.
Yao said that common nucleic acid tests sometimes report false negatives for confirmed COVID-19 patients, creating dire risks in controlling the spread of the disease.
Yao said the noninvasive screening system could save time and overcome the nucleic acid test's sensitivity problem, particularly in scenarios where rapid screening was desired, for example in hospitals, airplanes, high-level meetings, quarantine hotels and customs entry points.
Using both tests would provide a "double guarantee" to further reduce the spread of COVID-19, he added.
Scientists and researchers in some other countries, including Japan, Indonesia, Israel, France and the Netherlands, have been working on developing similar technology since last year. But Yao said the research teams in China were the first to report experimental data.