The COVID breathalyzer could end brain-poking forever

The non-invasive screening is on its way — and it's more accurate than a rapid test.

Credit: Shi Xuan Leong and Yong Xiang Leong, Nanyang Technological University
The Pandemic

If you’re like me, you’ve probably wondered why we haven’t come up with a more efficient way to test for COVID other than to ram a stick up our nostrils — especially when testing as many people as possible has been a key strategy in containing the pandemic. Scientists in Singapore recently completed a trial of a breathalyzer that they say can accurately detect COVID in less than five minutes and could change the COVID testing game for good.

The way the breathalyzer works is simple: You just exhale into it for 10 seconds. Our breaths contain gases called volatile organic compounds (V.O.C.s), which would interact with sensors in the breathalyzer to trigger a chemical reaction, according to the peer-reviewed study published in ACS Nano. The breathalizer would then be connected into a portable but fancy machine called the Raman spectrometer, where the chemical reaction of a COVID-positive person would show up differently than that of someone who is COVID-negative.

The breathalyzer was tested on 501 people in hospitals and airports throughout Singapore and resulted in 3.8% false negatives and 0.1% false positives, which is comparable to PCR tests but still significantly more accurate than rapid tests, which often miss early infections. On top of that, results from the breathalyzer came in less than five minutes, which could allow for the type of mass on-site testing that would let us have large gatherings again.

Scientists around the world have been working on creating breathalyzers that detect COVID for months, so this isn’t the first time something like this has ever been tested, per the New York Times. Still, other breathalyzers have been less accurate, are still in testing, or require heavy machinery that can’t be transported to analyze the results.

The real-life advantages of a portable breathalyzer are two fold: For one, it could free us from having to wait hours in an emergency room queue for a COVID test. Because the breathalyzer churned out reliable results in just a few minutes, it could be used to mass test people before they go into a music festival, a nightclub or even an airport, eliminating the need to get a test hours or even days before an event. Those who are positive could isolate sooner.

Personally, I’m ready to never get my brain tickled by an audaciously long Q-tip again. Although we’re not sure when these breathalyzers will be widely available in the U.S. yet, the Singaporean company Breathonix, which is set to distribute breathalyzers, has been in talk withs local and overseas organizations, per NBC. The faster we’re able to test a large number of people for COVID, the more safely we’ll be able to gather.