Instant COVID-19 breath test as precise as swab test, Israeli company says

Tel Aviv-based Scentech Medical is in second stage of trials and awaiting FDA approval for test with 98% accuracy

Israel's Scentech Medical hopes to create a breath test to sniff out the coronavirus (YouTube screenshot)

Israeli startup Scentech Medical says its instant coronavirus breath test works, based on initial findings in recent trials, obtaining an accuracy level of 98 percent, similar to that of the standard PCR swab test.

Seven hundred and eighty-four individuals participated in the trial at Assaf Harofeh Medical Center, breathing into the device for 10 seconds. The results are available within a few seconds.

According to the company, the device, using its so-called breath technology — a mix of software and hardware — manages to differentiate with high accuracy between positive, negative, and those with COVID-19 antibodies, the Ynet news site reported.

Scentech is preparing to submit an approval request from the FDA, which requires 91 percent accuracy, at least, for COVID-19 tests.

The current test for coronavirus requires a nasal swab to collect mucus and saliva, which is then tested to confirm infection, if present. If swabs are not collected properly, for example by insufficiently trained staff, this can significantly affect the number of false negatives.

Health care workers take test samples of Israelis in a drive through complex to check if they have been infected with the coronavirus in a mobile testing station, in Jerusalem, on December 31, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Scentech’s non-invasive process uses gas chromatography, a lab technique to separate and analyze compounds in gases; mass spectrometry, a technique used to determine the elemental signatures of particles and molecules; and a ReCIVA breath collecting device.

Before COVID-19, Scentech was developing the technology to try to identify cancer and infectious diseases via breath analysis — searching for their biomarkers in the thousands of different gases present in each exhalation, according to Dr. Udi Cantor, a general and urological surgeon who is the medical director of the coronavirus study.

These techniques can analyze the some 8,000 volatile organic compounds present within each breath, which play an active part in eliminating body waste, in a similar way to urine, sweat or stool, Cantor said.

Many of these gases have a known signature, he said, but there are still many of them that are unknown. The idea is to use an analytical elimination process to separate the known from the unknown compounds and then narrow the process down to find the elusive coronavirus biomarker.

“It’s a breath test that’s really going to change the world of diagnostics in general, and the world of COVID-19 in particular,” Scentech’s Dr. Rom Eliaz told Channel 13 news in June 2020, during the early stages of the trial.

“As soon as we can check a patient in 10 seconds and verify whether they are sick, all the borders can be opened,” Eliaz said. “It means the world can return to normal. And with that, the opening of everything else — stadiums, concert halls, restaurants. The whole world can open.”

The breath technology will help identify those infected even before symptoms are present, thus helping to halt the spread of the virus, the company hopes.

As the coronavirus outbreak has spiked in Israel, testing has increased, reaching a record 126,292 tests carried out on Monday.

Most carriers of COVID-19 have only mild symptoms or none at all, and some experts say that as asymptomatic people can infect others, massive testing is a critical element in getting a grip on the true spread of the virus — especially when lockdown measures are rolled back.

Shoshanna Solomon contributed to this report.

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