Imagine being able to blow into a tube and return a positive or negative result for COVID-19 within one minute.
It’s a possibility researchers with BC Cancer are investigating, and one they hope could be a game-changer when it comes to screening for the virus.
“Imagine doing large screenings so that we can come together again as a community and a society, so we could come to arenas, watch a hockey game indoors, if everyone was screened with breath before they went in,” Dr. Renelle Myers, a respirologist with BC Cancer Research Institute, told Global News.
Myers’ team was already working on breath testing when the pandemic hit, though they were originally investigating how to spot organic compounds in breath that could help with the early detection of cancer.
When COVID-19 became public health emergency number one, they kept the tools, but shifted focus to the virus.
“We knew the power of breath to detect different disease states,” she said.
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“We thought what a perfect way to detect COVID-19. What we’ve really needed this entire pandemic is testing — but we need testing in a very rapid, accurate and non-invasive way.”
While the COVID-19 tests currently available work by detecting the virus itself, the BC Cancer approach is different.
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Rather than spotting COVID-19 itself, it looks instead for unique chemical compounds produced by a body that’s been infected by the virus.
“We’re not actually looking to detect the virus, but we’re looking to detect the damage or the changes the virus has caused when it enters our body in the breath we exhale,” she said.
Researchers have collected about 350 samples so far, some from people confirmed to be COVID-19 positive, and some from people who have displayed mild symptoms.
Those samples are being compared against one another, as the team looks to nail down which volatile organic compounds can be definitively linked to COVID-19.
The research is being partially funded by Concord Pacific, which put up close to $125,000 to buy one of the machines for the team.
“We need all the tools in the toolbox … Then we can resume large events. And I think I’m pretty proud its all happening in Vancouver,” Concord Pacific president Terry Hui said.
It could still be some time before rapid breath testing becomes a reality.
After researchers nail down exactly what compounds to test for, there remain other hurdles, including Health Canada approval.
Myers said the team also hopes to be able to engineer the spectrometer which does the tests down from the size of a microwave to something hand-held.