S'pore to roll out Covid-19 breath test that provides fast results

Mr Chan Tiong Ley, head of software and partnerships at Breathonix, demonstrating how the non-invasive breath test system is used. A person being tested for Covid-19 simply breathes out into a disposable mouthpiece connected to a breath sampler.
Mr Chan Tiong Ley, head of software and partnerships at Breathonix, demonstrating how the non-invasive breath test system is used. A person being tested for Covid-19 simply breathes out into a disposable mouthpiece connected to a breath sampler.PHOTO: ONG WEI QIANG

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 (NUS), this breath test system has received provisional authorisation from Singapore's Health Sciences Authority (HSA) - the first such system to receive HSA's provisional authorisation.

This was announced yesterday in a joint statement by Breathonix and NUS.

The company's breathalysers will enable Covid-19 testing to be done much faster and more efficiently, without the need for swab samples to be processed elsewhere.

Trained staff can administer the test, with no need for medically trained staff to be involved.

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 (ART).

ARTs produce results in about 30 minutes and can be done on-site, while polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, which are considered to be the gold standard for testing, take a few hours. Swabs for PCR tests also have to be transported to laboratories.

For the new BreFence Go Covid-19 Breath Test System, a person simply exhales 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 (VOCs) in the exhaled breath.

A healthy person will have a different VOC signature from someone who is ill, and diffe-rent illnesses produce different signatures.

The total time from breath sampling to results takes less than a minute.

Any individual with a positive breathalyser result must 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.

"Cross-contamination is unlikely as the disposable mouthpiece has a one-way valve to prevent in-halation and a saliva trap to prevent saliva from entering the breath sampler."

The breath analysis system underwent clinical trials at three locations from last June to last month.

Two of the trials were carried out here, at the National Centre for Infectious Diseases and Changi Airport, while the third 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.

The company was 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.

Professor Freddy Boey, deputy president of innovation and enterprise at NUS, 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 am confident that their novel technology will make a significant contribution towards protecting the safety and health of Singaporeans and the global community."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 25, 2021, with the headline 'S'pore to roll out Covid-19 breath test that provides fast results'. Subscribe