New device can detect COVID-19 in less than a minute

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New device can detect COVID-19 in less than a minute

Benjamin Sumlin, Ph.D., senior scientist at Washington University in St. Louis, blows into a device designed by researchers at the university. The device — a breath test that uses a biosensor — could become a tool for use in doctors’ offices to quickly diagnose people infected with the virus that causes COVID-19.

Scientists at Washington University in St. Louis have developed a breath test that quickly identifies those infected with the virus that causes COVID-19. The device only requires one or two inhalations and provides results in less than a minute.

The study is available online in the journal ACS Sensors. The same group of researchers recently published a paper in the journal Nature Communications about an airborne monitor they created to detect airborne SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes COVID-19 – within about five minutes in hospitals, schools and other public places .

The new study is about a breath test that could become a tool for use in doctors’ offices to quickly diagnose people infected with the virus. If and when new strains of COVID-19 or other airborne pathogens emerge, such devices could also be used to screen people at public events. The researchers said the breath test also has the potential to help prevent outbreaks in situations where many people live or interact in close quarters — for example, aboard ships, in nursing homes, in college and university dormitories, or in the military bases.

“With this test, there are no nasal swabs and no waiting 15 minutes for results as with home tests,” said co-author Rajan K. Chakrabarty, Ph.D., Harold D. Jolly Associate Professor of Energy, Environmental and Chemical Engineering Career Development at The McKelvey School of Engineering. “One simply blows into a tube in the device and an electrochemical biosensor detects whether the virus is there. The results are available in about a minute.”

The biosensor used in the device is adapted from an Alzheimer’s-related technology developed by scientists at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis to detect amyloid beta and other Alzheimer’s-related proteins in the brains of mice. John R. Cirrito, PhD, professor of neurology at the School of Medicine, and Carla M. Yuede, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry—both co-authors of the study—used a nanobody, an antibody from llamas, to detect the virus that causes COVID-19 .

Chakrabarty and Cirrito said the breath test could be modified to simultaneously detect other viruses, including influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). They also believe they can develop a biodetector for any emerging pathogen within two weeks of receiving samples of it.

It’s a bit like a breathalyzer test that might be given to an impaired driver. And for example, if people are lining up to get into a hospital, sports arena, or the White House Situation Room, 15-minute nasal swab tests aren’t practical, and PCR tests take even longer. Plus, home tests are about 60% to 70% accurate and produce many false negatives. This device will have diagnostic accuracy.”

John R. Sirito, Professor of Neurology, Washington University School of Medicine

The researchers began working on the breath test device — made with 3D printers — after receiving a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in August 2020, the first year of the pandemic. Since receiving the grant, they’ve been testing prototypes in the lab and at Washington University’s Division of Infectious Disease Clinical Research. The team continues to test the device to further improve its efficacy in detecting the virus in humans.

For the purpose of the study, the research team tested COVID-positive individuals, each of whom breathed into the device two, four or eight times. The breath test produced no false negatives and gave accurate readings after two breaths from each person tested. The clinical trial is ongoing to test both COVID-positive and -negative individuals for further testing and optimization of the device.

The researchers also found that the breath test successfully detected several different strains of SARS-CoV-2, including the original strain and the omicron variant, and their clinical studies measured active strains in the St. Louis area.

To conduct the breath test, researchers insert a straw into the device. The patient blows into the straw and then aerosols from the person’s breath are collected on a biosensor inside the device. The device is then plugged into a small machine that reads signals from the biosensor, and in less than a minute the machine reveals a positive or negative finding for COVID-19.

Clinical trials are ongoing, and the researchers soon plan to use the device in clinics outside the University of Washington’s Infectious Diseases Clinical Research Unit. In addition, Y2X Life Sciences, a New York-based company, has an exclusive option to license the technology. This company consulted with the research team from the beginning of the project and during the design stages of the device to facilitate the possible commercialization of the test in the future.


Washington University School of Medicine

Journal reference:

Gumra, DP, and others. (2023) Rapid direct detection of SARS-CoV-2 aerosols in exhaled air at the point of care. ACS sensors.

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