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Coronavirus research

French researchers invent breath test to spot Covid-19 in the air

A researcher looks at a screen that is reading molecules detected by the COVID-19 test machine after a patient suffering from coronavirus disease (COVID-19) breathed into the tube at the La Croix-Rousse Hospital in Lyon, France, July 22, 2020. Picture taken July 22, 2020.
A researcher looks at a screen that is reading molecules detected by the COVID-19 test machine after a patient suffering from coronavirus disease (COVID-19) breathed into the tube at the La Croix-Rousse Hospital in Lyon, France, July 22, 2020. Picture taken July 22, 2020. © REUTERS - Yiming Woo

A hospital research team in the southern city of Lyon has come up with an instant breath test to tell whether someone has coronavirus or not. The discovery could pave the way for new coronavirus testing beyond throat and nose swabs.

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It may be too early to say whether testing a person's breath for Covid-19 will be a game changer in France's efforts to tackle the pandemic, but for some researchers, it is a step in the right direction.

"We're pretty confident we're on the right track," Christian George, director of the National Centre of Scientific Research (CNRS) at the la Croix-Rousse hospital in Lyon told Reuters.

"Two months ago, we still knew very little about this disease, and now, we are starting to get information that is becoming clearer by the day," he noted.

That information is given out by a new breathalyser: a grey machine, the size of a refrigerator, that identifies chemical compounds in exhaled air.

The contraption is currently being tested on patients at the la Croix-Rousse hospital.

Breath at last

Patients are required to blow into a tube and in a matter of seconds they are told if they have Covid-19 or not.

George and his team have tested dozens of people in three months, 20 of whom had the virus.

A biologist collects a sample from a child next to his mother at a COVID-19 screening-drive, in the parking of the Laval hospital, in Laval, Western France on July 9, 2020.
A biologist collects a sample from a child next to his mother at a COVID-19 screening-drive, in the parking of the Laval hospital, in Laval, Western France on July 9, 2020. AFP - JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER

Unlike the uncomfortable standard PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests, the new breathalyser is not invasive and provides an immediate result.

Some observers have said it is high time that attention was paid to the air we breathe, an important variable in what remains a respiratory pandemic.

There are still a few hurdles to get through before the breathalyser can be made available to the public.

New era

First, is the cost. The current machine, which enters its second trial phase, is too expensive for widespread consumption experts say, and are relying on cheaper models further down the line.

Second, is its availability. The breathalyser is unlikely to be ready until the end of the year, too late if there is a second wave of the virus in France.

The other difficulty is being sure that the breathalyser tests specifically for Covid-19 and not every single respiratory disease.

"We remain cautious," said the CNRS' George, but insisted this new testing method could mark a "new era in medical diagnostics".

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