An easy-to-use breath test that can accurately detect COVID-19 within a minute has received provisional authorisation from Singapore’s Health Sciences Authority (HSA). Developed by Breathonix Pte Ltd, a spin-off company from the National University of Singapore (NUS), the BreFence Go COVID-19 Breath Test System is the first breath analysis system to secure provisional authorisation in Singapore.
Breathonix is now working with the Singapore Ministry of Health (MOH) to run a deployment trial of their technology at Tuas Checkpoint with Malaysia, where incoming travellers will undergo screening with the system. This breath analysis will be carried out alongside the current compulsory COVID-19 antigen rapid test.
Anyone who tests positive in the breath test would be screened in a confirmatory PCR swab test.
“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. Our team is grateful for the invaluable support and advice provided by NUS,” said Du Fang, co-founder and chief operating officer of Breathonix.
The system works by detecting volatile organic compounds (VOCs) present in a person’s exhaled breath. As the VOC signature from a healthy person’s breath vary from that of a person with an illness, changes in VOCs can be measured as markers for diseases like COVID-19.
The breath test is simple to administer by trained personnel but does not require medically trained staff or laboratory processing. A person only needs to blow into a disposable one-way valve mouthpiece connected to a high-precision breath sampler. The exhaled breath is collected and fed into a cutting-edge mass spectrometer for measurement.
Dr Jia Zhunan, chief executive officer of Breathonix explained, “Our breath test is non-invasive. Users only need to breathe out normally into the disposable mouthpiece provided, so there will not be any discomfort. Cross-contamination is unlikely as the disposable mouthpiece has a one-way valve and a saliva trap to prevent inhalation or saliva from entering the machine.”
The test has so far undergone three clinical trials, two in Singapore and another in Dubai. It achieved a sensitivity of 93 percent and specificity of 95 percent in one early Singapore-based pilot study that involved 180 patients.
Accurate tests at speed could be key to helping unlock a travel sector that has slowed to a crawl during the pandemic. Even as the United States 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.