Trial using new Covid-19 breathalysers at Tuas Checkpoint to start in a few days

Using these breathalysers will enable Covid-19 testing to be done much faster and more efficiently. PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM YOUTUBE

SINGAPORE - A breath test that can accurately detect Covid-19 within a minute will be rolled out in Singapore, with a trial slated to begin at Tuas Checkpoint in the next few days.

Developed by Breathonix, a spin-off from the National University of Singapore, this breath test system has received provisional authorisation from Singapore's Health Sciences Authority (HSA), the first such system to receive it here. This was announced on Monday (May 24) in a joint statement by Breathonix and NUS.

Using these breathalysers will enable Covid-19 testing to be done much faster and more efficiently, without the need for the samples to be processed elsewhere. Trained personnel will administer the test, with no need for medically trained staff.

Breathonix is now working with the Ministry of Health for its deployment trial at Tuas Checkpoint, where incoming travellers will be screened. This breath analysis will be carried out alongside the current compulsory Covid-19 antigen rapid test.

Antigen rapid tests produce results in around 30 minutes and can be done on site. Meanwhile, polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, considered to be the gold standard for testing, take a few hours. Swabs for PCR tests also have to be transported to labs.

For the new BreFence Go Covid-19 Breath Test System, people simply exhale into a disposable one-way valved mouthpiece that is connected to a breath sampler. A mass spectrometer analyses the invisible particles called volatile organic compounds (VOC) in a person's exhaled breath.

A healthy person will have a different VOC signature from someone who is ill, and different illnesses produce different signatures. The total time from breath sampling to results takes less than a minute.

Any individual with a positive breathalyser result will need to undergo a confirmatory PCR swab test.

Dr Jia Zhunan, chief executive of Breathonix, said: "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."

She added: "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 breath analysis system underwent clinical trials at three locations conducted from June 2020 to April 2021. Locally, trials were carried out at the National Centre for Infectious Diseases and Changi Airport while the third trial was carried out in Dubai, in collaboration with the Dubai Health Authority and the Mohammed Bin Rashid University of Medicine and Health Sciences.

Breathonix is in discussion with several local and overseas organisations to use the system, given its strong commercial interest.

Breathonix is founded by three NUS graduates - Dr Jia, Mr Du Fang and Mr Wayne Wee - along with Professor T. Venky Venkatesan. It is supported by the NUS Graduate Research Innovation Programme (Grip), a scheme that encourages talented NUS graduate students and research staff to establish and run high potential start-ups based on deep technologies.

Breathonix is founded by Dr Jia Zhunan (left) and Mr Du Fang (middle). With them is Professor Freddy Boey, NUS deputy president (innovation and enterprise). PHOTO: NUS

Professor Freddy Boey, deputy president (innovation and enterprise), who oversees the NUS Grip team, said: "Securing provisional authorisation in Singapore is a major milestone for Breathonix, and NUS is very proud of this achievement by our start-up.

"The pandemic is likely to go on for several years. Mass, repeated testing has to be widely adopted as a key public health strategy to support the safe reopening of economies, and Breathonix's home-grown technology hits the right spot.

"I'm confident that their novel technology will make a significant contribution towards protecting the safety and health of Singaporeans and the global community," he added.

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