Benjamin Sumlin blows into a breath test that uses a biosensor. It could become a tool in doctors’ offices to quickly diagnose people infected with the virus that causes COVID-19. (Credit: Chakrabarty Lab/WUSTL)

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenging time for society at large. The need for quick and accurate testing has never been more evident. Now, scientists at Washington University in St. Louis have developed an innovative solution: a breath test for detecting COVID-19. This revolutionary development is a monumental leap in healthcare technology. It promises significant improvements in the rapid detection and control of not just the COVID-19 virus but potentially any airborne pathogenic diseases.

The newly developed breath test is a quick, non-invasive alternative to nasal swab tests. Patients merely breathe into the device, which then uses an electrochemical biosensor to detect the presence of the virus. The results are available within a minute, an incredible improvement over the current standard tests that can take up to 15 minutes or more. This expedited testing can prove vital in efficiently identifying and isolating infected individuals, thus preventing the virus's rapid spread in densely populated environments.

What makes this device extraordinary is the usage of advanced biosensor technology borrowed from an Alzheimer's disease-related technology. The biosensor was initially developed to detect amyloid beta and other Alzheimer's disease-related proteins in mice's brains. The scientists ingeniously adapted it, using a nanobody—an antibody from llamas—to detect the virus that causes COVID-19.

Beyond COVID-19: A Future-Proof Diagnostic Device

The breath test’s potential goes far beyond the current pandemic. The device can be modified to detect other viruses, such as influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), making it a versatile tool in combating future outbreaks of airborne diseases. According to the research team, a detector for any newly emerging pathogen could be developed within two weeks of receiving samples, demonstrating an impressive flexibility that could prove invaluable in future public health crises.

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Accuracy is a critical factor in disease detection, and this device also delivers on this front. Early testing results reveal no false negatives, and the device successfully detected several strains of SARS-CoV-2, including the original strain and the Omicron variant. This proves the breath test to be a reliable method for detecting COVID-19, providing a substantial advantage over the home tests, which are only 60% to 70% accurate and often yield false negatives.

The development of the breath test device made possible with a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has been a journey of continuous testing and improvements. This journey, from the lab to field testing in the Washington University Infectious Diseases Clinical Research Unit, has spanned multiple years and has seen considerable progress.

The research is ongoing, and plans are in place to deploy the device in clinics beyond Washington University's Infectious Diseases Clinical Research Unit. In a promising move towards commercialization, New York-based company Y2X Life Sciences has an exclusive option to license the technology, having been consulted with the research team since the project's inception and during the device's design stages.

Significance of This Innovation

This breakthrough in diagnostic technology is more than just a scientific achievement—it's a beacon of hope for societies grappling with the many challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. The societal significance of this innovation cannot be overstated. In a world where the threat of airborne diseases has changed how we live, work, and interact, a reliable and efficient diagnostic tool like this breath test has become a critical weapon in our battle against infectious diseases.

One of the unique challenges that the pandemic has thrown up is resistance to preventive measures such as mask-wearing, social distancing, and vaccinations. Misinformation, fear, and skepticism have led a substantial part of the population to resist these measures, thus jeopardizing collective efforts to curb the spread of the virus. A fast, non-invasive, and accurate test like this breath device can overcome these hurdles.

Because the breath test can detect COVID-19 within a minute, a marked improvement over traditional tests that can take up to 15 minutes or longer, this speed enables health professionals to swiftly isolate infected individuals, drastically reducing the spread of the virus. Quick detection is particularly crucial in settings where people live or interact in close quarters, such as schools, nursing homes, military bases, or residential colleges, where the virus can spread rapidly and uncontrollably.

Those most at risk from COVID-19, such as the elderly, those with underlying health conditions, and frontline workers, stand to gain significantly from this innovation. Providing a fast, accurate diagnosis enables immediate medical intervention and reduces the chance of severe disease progression. It offers a potential lifeline for those most vulnerable to the virus, and their families, bringing peace of mind in these challenging times.

Our societies rely heavily on critical services—healthcare, education, public transportation, emergency services, etc. The spread of the virus can severely disrupt these essential services, causing widespread social and economic impacts. The ability of this breath test to rapidly detect infections can help ensure the continuity of these services by enabling the swift isolation of infected individuals and preventing large-scale outbreaks.

Addressing Future Threats

Perhaps most significantly, this device represents a leap forward in our ability to respond to emerging pathogen threats. The scientists' ability to adapt the device to detect other viruses and the potential to develop a detector for any newly emerging pathogen within two weeks of receiving samples is a powerful testament to the device's potential. In a world where the emergence of new diseases is an ever-present threat, this ability to quickly adapt and respond could be invaluable in preventing future pandemics.

This breath test for COVID-19  significance lies in its potential to transform disease detection, provide rapid responses to emerging threats, protect the most vulnerable among us, and ensure the continuity of critical services.  Original Study

About the Author

jenningsRobert Jennings is co-publisher of with his wife Marie T Russell. He attended the University of Florida, Southern Technical Institute, and the University of Central Florida with studies in real estate, urban development, finance, architectural engineering, and elementary education. He was a member of the US Marine Corps and The US Army having commanded a field artillery battery in Germany. He worked in real estate finance, construction and development for 25 years before starting in 1996.

InnerSelf is dedicated to sharing information that allows people to make educated and insightful choices in their personal life, for the good of the commons, and for the well-being of the planet. InnerSelf Magazine is in its 30+year of publication in either print (1984-1995) or online as Please support our work.

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