Indonesia to introduce rapid breath test to detect Covid-19 infections within minutes

A single test takes only three minutes and the result is ready in just two minutes. PHOTO: GADJAH MADA UNIVERSITY

JAKARTA - Indonesia will soon introduce a new rapid test which can analyse breath samples and detect Covid-19 infection within a few minutes.

The test is set to use breathalysers GeNose C19, developed by researchers at Yogyakarta-based Gadjah Mada University.

Professor Kuwat Triyana, who leads the research team, said on Saturday (Dec 26) that 100 breathalysers would be initially distributed for massive screening in public places, such as airports, train stations and hospitals, after the Health Ministry granted a distribution permit for their use on Thursday (Dec 24).

A single test takes only three minutes, which includes the collection of the breath samples, and the result is ready in just two minutes. It costs between 15,000 rupiah and 25,000 rupiah (S$1.40 and S$2.35).

"Each one of the 100 units from the first batch to be released is expected to be able to carry out 120 tests, or cover a total of 12,000 people per day," Prof Kuwat said in a statement posted on the university's website.

The research team has targeted to produce 10,000 breathalysers by the end of February, to test 1.2 million people each day.

"These figures are certainly not our end goal. But, with the capability to test as many people as possible, hopefully we can find people contracting the Covid-19 without any symptom and isolate or treat them immediately to break the chain of infections," he added.

A consortium of five companies has committed to supporting the production and distribution of the diagnostic tools, whose development was funded by the State Intelligence Agency and the Research and Technology Ministry.

Indonesia, which announced its first two Covid-19 cases in early March, has struggled to achieve adequate testing to detect infections on the ground.

Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, set by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as the standard testing for diagnosis, are costly and could exceed two million rupiah, busting the 900,000 rupiah ceiling for the price of the tests which the health authorities had provided for in early October.

The much-cheaper rapid antibody tests have been widely used for massive screening, and the antigen tests were recently required for travel. Those tested positive are advised to take the PCR tests.

Dr Windhu Purnomo, an epidemiologist from Surabaya-based Airlangga University, told The Straits Times that like other testing methods, the breath analysis is only useful for massive screening and should not be used to make a diagnosis.

"GeNose is said to be quick and cheap so that it will help screening, especially for traveling purposes," he said, adding that the diagnosis should only be based on PCR tests.

The WHO has suggested that a country conduct at least 1,000 tests per one million of its population a week.

Based on this guideline, Indonesia, the world's fourth-most populous nation of nearly 270 million people, should carry out about 270,000 tests a week.

Indonesia analysed nearly 338,000 clinical specimens collected from 224,945 people in the past week from Dec 21 to 27, according to figures from the Health Ministry. So far, a total of 7.12 million clinical specimens from 4.76 million people has been analysed.

As at Sunday (Dec 27), Indonesia has recorded 713,365 Covid-19 infections and 21,237 deaths, the highest in South-east Asia.

Although Indonesia has almost met the WHO's testing rate benchmark, epidemiologists said it needs to further widen testing in order to help flatten the curve of infections.

Dr Windhu acknowledged that Indonesia's testing rate remains low, and it should strive to go beyond the minimum WHO standard. He warned that the real number of infections in Indonesia may be six times that of around 7,000 cases reported daily.

"Below the surface, there are still a lot of undetected infections," he said.

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