Just breathe: Israeli-made Nano COVID breath test spots every carrier in trial

Technion’s Hossam Haick says his breath test eliminates lab processing, and also the need for anyone to touch patients or samples; clinical trial results have been peer-reviewed

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

A prototype of Prof. Hossam Haick's COVID-19 breath test (courtesy of Hossam Haick)
A prototype of Prof. Hossam Haick's COVID-19 breath test (courtesy of Hossam Haick)

An Israeli COVID-19 breath test has correctly identified all positive patients in a clinical trial in Wuhan, China, according to a newly peer-reviewed study.

The device uses nanotechnology to identify compounds from the lung that are present in the breath of coronavirus patients, Prof. Hossam Haick of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology told The Times of Israel on Friday.

He said that it is fully automatic, eliminating the need for anyone to come in to contact with the patient to handle their sample, which is good for efficiency and for hygiene.

“You just blow into the device, which is the size of a smartphone, for 2 to 3 seconds, from a distance of 2 centimeters away,” he said. “There are no accessories, it requires no lab processing, and it gives results within 30 seconds of blowing.”

A diagram illustrating Prof. Hossam Haick’s new coronavirus breath test (courtesy of Hossam Haick)

The current prototypes of the device are half-held, but Haick said that the final product will require no touch, meaning that the “danger of cross-contamination is very low.”

The technology is being developed for the market by the company Nanose Medical, where Haick serves as chief technology officer, and he predicted tests will cost around $2 to $3 per person.

The clinical trial examined 140 people, 49 of them confirmed coronavirus patients. It identified all carriers as coronavirus positive, but erred with the results of seven healthy people, reporting them to be positive.

Regular swab tests also throw up some false positives, but it’s not known exactly how many, as people often assume their result is correct and they are asymptomatic. Doctors are less concerned about false positives, which can cause inconvenience by needlessly worrying and quarantining people, than false negatives that can lead people to assume wrongly they are virus-free and spread the coronavirus.

Professor Hossam Haick (courtesy of Hossam Haick )

Haick said that in his design, he emphasized accurate assessment of people who are sick, but with respiratory conditions other than coronavirus. “Think about winter time, when people will have lots of conditions, such as influenza and colds, that make them feel sick but aren’t COVID-19, and it’s very important we can differentiate between them correctly,” he commented.

While there is a flurry of reports about new fast-testing technologies, Haick said that his has credentials to prove its seriousness.

The trial was approved by authorities in China, and, unlike some other innovations, results have been peer-reviewed and published earlier this week in a scientific journal, ACS Nano. “This was peer-reviewed, which is important, as it indicates we are meeting the standards of the scientific community,” said Haick.

A participant in the trial blows on a device to detect COVID-19 in Wuhan, China in March 2020 (Courtesy of Hossam Haick)

He has developed the test, together with Technion colleague Yoav Broza and researchers from Wuhan, based on a device he invented a few years ago for detecting cancer.

This cancer test isn’t in use yet, as it is still undergoing assessment by regulators, but Haick expects the coronavirus version to be accredited quickly due to the urgency of COVID testing.

“If everything goes well with further clinical studies, I hope it will be available and regulated within six months,” he said.

The test is one of several innovations being worked on in Israel, including a new ultra-fast gargle-and-spit test, to replace PCR testing, which includes an unpleasant swabbing process and requires lengthy lab analysis, as the main screening method used worldwide.

PCR tests are believed to be around 80% accurate. Accelerated PCR testing, the fastest current method, is not widely available and with a 15-minute turnaround at its best, comes at a financial cost and with a reduction in accuracy levels.

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