Skip to main content
Move the World.
COVID-19 breath test

Lead Image Courtesy of Breathonix

Singaporean health authorities have provisionally authorized a COVID-19 breath test that delivers accurate results in just one minute.

Why it matters: While vaccines are helping slow the spread of COVID-19, hundreds of thousands of new cases are still being reported every day — and the pandemic might not end for years.

During that time, we're going to need to remain vigilant, testing people often to stay ahead of any potential outbreaks. A breath-based test that delivers fast results will be far easier to deploy on a massive scale than tests that rely on blood draws or lab analysis.

How it works: When you breathe out, you exhale molecules called volatile organic compounds (VOCs). More than 3,000 different VOCs have been found in human breath, and the levels of the molecules can indicate if a person is suffering from certain health problems.

COVID-19 is one of the diseases that produces a unique "VOC signature," so Singapore-based company Breathonix developed a test that could identify that signature in a breath sample.

They call it the "BreFence Go COVID-19 Breath Test System." To use it, a person exhales into a disposable mouthpiece. Their sample is fed to an instrument that measures VOC levels. An algorithm then analyzes the measurements, returning a diagnosis in less than a minute.

Looking ahead: During a clinical trial involving 180 people, the COVID-19 breath test demonstrated a sensitivity of 93% (meaning it caught 93% of people with COVID-19) and specificity of 95% (meaning it correctly identified 95% of people who were negative). Other, larger trials are currently ongoing.

Singapore is also working with Breathonix to deploy the test at a checkpoint along the Malaysian border. Any incoming travelers who test positive will then be given a swab-based rapid antigen test (which takes about 20-30 minutes) to confirm the result.

The test identifies COVID-19's unique "breath signature."

The big picture: Breathonix's test is the first breath-analysis system to secure provisional authorisation from Singapore's Health Sciences Authority.

However, it's not the world's first authorized COVID-19 breath test — Indonesia has deployed its own test, and so has the Netherlands. Many other countries have such tests in development.

Still, with potentially years of pandemic life ahead of us, the development of any new COVID-19 test is good news — especially when it's as fast, accurate, and easy to use as this one.

We'd love to hear from you! If you have a comment about this article or if you have a tip for a future Freethink story, please email us at [email protected].

Up Next

If you want to understand a problem, talk to the people working on solutions. Join us as we meet the people and explore the ideas on the frontlines of an unprecedented global response.

Biohacking
What It’s Like To Do a Human Challenge Trial
human challenge trial
Biohacking
What It’s Like To Do a Human Challenge Trial
Human challenge trials are risky, but they could help us avoid another prolonged pandemic.
By Hannah Thomasy

Human challenge trials are risky, but they could help us avoid another prolonged pandemic.

Coronavirus
COVID-19 Tests That Are Fast, Cheap, and Less Accurate May Be Key
covid-19 tests
Coronavirus
COVID-19 Tests That Are Fast, Cheap, and Less Accurate May Be Key
Fast, cheap, DIY COVID-19 tests could dramatically increase the amount of testing done. And some experts think the trade off in accuracy would be worth it.

Fast, cheap, DIY COVID-19 tests could dramatically increase the amount of testing done. And some experts think the trade off in accuracy would be worth it.

Public Health
Would You Volunteer to be Infected With COVID-19?
coronavirus vaccine development
Public Health
Would You Volunteer to be Infected With COVID-19?
Coronavirus vaccine development could take months. There’s a potential shortcut though: purposefully exposing research subjects to the virus.

Coronavirus vaccine development could take months. There’s a potential shortcut though: purposefully exposing research subjects to the virus.

Coronavirus
How To Stop COVID-19's Killer Cytokine Storm
cytokine storm
Coronavirus
How To Stop COVID-19's Killer Cytokine Storm
COVID-19 can cause a potentially lethal cytokine storm, a runaway immune system response. Researchers are studying drugs they hope can calm the storm.

COVID-19 can cause a potentially lethal cytokine storm, a runaway immune system response. Researchers are studying drugs they hope can calm the storm.

Public Health
Singapore to Give All Residents Wearables for Contact Tracing
Contact Tracing
Public Health
Singapore to Give All Residents Wearables for Contact Tracing
Singapore is testing the ability of wearables for contact tracing to prevent an increase in coronavirus infections as it lifts lockdown restrictions.

Singapore is testing the ability of wearables for contact tracing to prevent an increase in coronavirus infections as it lifts lockdown restrictions.

Public Health
Children and Seniors to Join Oxford’s Coronavirus Vaccine Trial
Coronavirus Vaccine Trial
Public Health
Children and Seniors to Join Oxford’s Coronavirus Vaccine Trial
Oxford University is enrolling people older than 70 and children between the ages of 5 and 12 in a Phase 2 coronavirus vaccine trial.

Oxford University is enrolling people older than 70 and children between the ages of 5 and 12 in a Phase 2 coronavirus vaccine trial.

Public Health
Modifying the Measles Vaccine Could Stop the Coronavirus Faster
Stop the Coronavirus
Public Health
Modifying the Measles Vaccine Could Stop the Coronavirus Faster
To stop the coronavirus from spreading, researchers are working on a vaccine that would use the measles vaccine as its delivery vehicle.

To stop the coronavirus from spreading, researchers are working on a vaccine that would use the measles vaccine as its delivery vehicle.

Public Health
Y Combinator Startups Turn Resources Toward Coronavirus
businesses fighting the coronavirus
Public Health
Y Combinator Startups Turn Resources Toward Coronavirus
More than 25 Y Combinator startups have joined the COVID-19 response effort — find out how you can help these businesses fighting the coronavirus.

More than 25 Y Combinator startups have joined the COVID-19 response effort — find out how you can help these businesses fighting the coronavirus.

Public Health
Private Sector Stepping Up to Combat COVID-19
Private Sector Stepping Up to Combat COVID-19
Public Health
Private Sector Stepping Up to Combat COVID-19
Cosmetics companies and distilleries are making hand sanitizer and the UK asks manufacturers to make ventilators as the private sector responds to the pandemic.

Cosmetics companies and distilleries are making hand sanitizer and the UK asks manufacturers to make ventilators as the private sector responds to the pandemic.