Singapore approves COVID-19 breath test with 1-minute result

singapore children school covid
Children walk home with their guardians after school in Singapore on May 17, 2021, as the country prepares to shut all schools and switch to home-based learning until the end of the term due to a rise in the number of Covid-19 coronavirus cases. Image Credit: AFP

A breath test designed to detect COVID-19 and give accurate results within one minute has been approved for use in Singapore, the National University of Singapore said in a statement.

The test, developed by NUS spinoff start-up Breathonix, works much like a standard breathalyzer test that police might use to see if an erratic driver is drunk. A person blows into a one-way valve mouthpiece, and compounds in the person’s breath – think of it as a breath signature – are compared by machine-learning software to the sort of breath signature expected from someone who’s COVID-positive.

Accurate tests at that speed could be key to unlocking a travel sector that’s crucial for Singapore’s economy but has slowed to a crawl during the pandemic. Even as the U.S. 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.

The breathalyzers “may potentially facilitate opening the borders in the longer run, but of course that’s up to the ministry’s assessment,” said Du Fang, the company’s chief operating officer. Travelers from countries defined as low-risk “can just simply do a breath test, and then they can easily enter into Singapore and we can open the borders to those green countries sooner.”

Singapore will use the breathalyzers in a deployment trial to screen some incoming travelers from Malaysia, the Straits Times reported. Anyone who tests positive in the breath test would be screened in a confirmatory PCR swab test. Singapore currently screens entrants with antigen rapid tests, which would continue alongside the breathalyzers.

The tests will sell for $3.80 (S$5) to $15 (S$20) each, Du Fang said.

The Breathonix test so far has undergone two clinical trials in Singapore and another in Dubai. It achieved a sensitivity of 93% and specificity of 95% in one early Singapore-based pilot study that involved 180 patients.