Breath test for COVID-19 provides almost instant results

A study led by Loughborough University has shown that Covid-19 can be detected through a non-invasive breath test and provide results almost instantly.

breath test for COVID-19
The BreathSpec device was used during field trials last year in Finland for a CBRN exercise. (Photo: Andrew Weekes)

Working with partners at Ion Mobility Spectrometry (IMS) specialists IMSPEX Group, plus the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh and Germany’s Klinikum Dortmund Hospital, the consortium’s research team has identified candidate biomarkers present in the breath of someone affected by Covid-19.


Utilising technologies developed by G.A.S.GmbH during the TOXI-Triage project, the team has demonstrated how these ‘breath signatures’ can be used to rapidly distinguish Covid-19 from other respiratory conditions at point of need without laboratory support.

Ninety-eight patients were recruited for the feasibility study, of whom 31 had Covid-19. Other diagnoses included asthma, exacerbation of asthma and COPD, viral pneumonia, other respiratory tract infections, and cardiac conditions. The team used Gas Chromatography (GC) and Ion Mobility Spectrometry (IMS) to identify and diagnose Covid-19 from the samples.

Participants gave a single breath-sample for volatile organic compounds analysis by GC-IMS, which identified aldehydes (ethanal, octanal), ketones (acetone, butanone), and methanol that discriminated COVID-19 from other conditions.

In a statement, Paul Thomas, Professor of Analytical Science from Loughborough’s Department of Chemistry, said: “We are hugely encouraged by these findings. Employing tried and tested techniques used during the TOXI-Triage project, suggests that Covid-19 may be rapidly distinguished from other respiratory conditions.

“To develop this technique further larger studies are required, together with complementary GC-MS studies, to build on the data collected so far. If shown to be reliable, it offers the possibility for rapid identification or exclusion of Covid-19 in emergency departments or primary care that will protect healthcare staff, improve the management of patients and reduce the spread of Covid-19.”

IMSPEX’s BreathSpec device has been a key tool used by researchers in the analysis of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in human breath.

Company CEO Santi Dominguez said: “The IMSPEX Group is very pleased that our ground-breaking technology has delivered these exciting results. What will be needed now will be to rapidly acquire more data to continue to develop the test, and institutional and investor support to scale our manufacturing capability.

The research paper, Diagnosis of COVID-19 by analysis of breath with gas chromatography-ion mobility spectrometry - a feasibility study, has been published by The Lancet’s EClinicalMedicine journal.