‘Promising’ breathalyzer-like COVID test highlights need for better data, experts say

New ways to test for COVID-19 promise rapid accessibility and results, but that doesn’t diminish the need for consistent national data on the number of cases, experts say.

As Canada loses track of case numbers, a variety of new COVID testing technologies are emerging in North America. In mid-April, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first breath test for the virus, known as the InspectIR COVID-19 breathalyzer. And in Canada, scientists in Waterloo, Ontario, are developing a paper-based saliva test.

The Inspect IR breath test is the size of a carry-on suitcase. No swab is required; instead, users blow through a straw for about 10 seconds, long enough to fill a small balloon. It can detect a chemical signature of the virus and provide results in three minutes, according to a study carried out in the United States

According to the FDA, the breathalyzer has been validated in a great study 2,409 people; some of the participants had symptoms of COVID-19, while others were asymptomatic. Data provided by Inspect IR shows that the results are over 90% accurate in detecting the virus.

The InspectIR COVID-19 Breathalyzer detects a chemical signature of the virus and can provide results in minutes. (Reuters)

“Basically, it’s the equivalent of a breathalyzer you would take or a blood alcohol test you would take as a driver,” said Dr. Vanessa Allen, a medical microbiologist in the microbiology lab at University Health. Network/Mount Sinai Hospital.

Another type of test is promising: experts

Allen says the breath test is an example of a test that is becoming cheaper, faster and more accessible to people.

“It doesn’t have the portability that I think we’re looking for in terms of diagnostic testing, but still offers some promise in terms of being able to potentially use it in outpatient clinics, family practices,” he said. she stated. “Overall, I think it’s very exciting.

“This trend of bringing home testing, I think, will allow people to make safe decisions,” Allen said.

It could take up to 10 more weeks for the first devices to hit the market, according to the New York Times. It’s unclear if the five-employee, Texas-based company intends to submit an application to Health Canada for approval of the device and if it could possibly be available here.

Dr. Vanessa Allen is a medical microbiologist in the Microbiology Laboratory at University Health Network/Mount Sinai Hospital. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

But it’s critical that Canada diversify the ways people can have their infection confirmed quickly, so they can know if they’re eligible for antivirals, said Dr. Catherine Hankins, co-chair of the Canadian Task Force on Antivirals. immunity to COVID-19.

“We need to look at the details and…understand what will be required for Health Canada’s approval, but it’s promising,” Hankins said.

Molecular tests – like a PCR test – have been considered the gold standard throughout the pandemic.

But while PCR tests are the most sensitive, they’re also the most labor-intensive when it comes to healthcare resources, said infectious disease physician and researcher Dr. Lisa Barrett. at Dalhousie University in Halifax. Rapid antigen tests, on the other hand, can be quick, but the results are not as accurate.

This new breath test could be a solution that falls somewhere in the middle, Barrett said.

Dr. Lisa Barrett is an infectious disease researcher and clinician at Dalhousie University in Halifax. (Radio Canada)

“It has the potential to fill some gaps in the community, but it’s not entirely clear how much better it will be than a rapid antigen test,” Barrett said.

A greener testing option

Another potential test is being developed at the University of Waterloo’s Institute for Nanotechnology.

There, researchers led by Sushanta Mitra are working on a paper-based COVID-19 saliva test with a grant.

Mitra says the team wanted to develop a test that doesn’t create environmental waste, as current tests do. Their test works by placing saliva on a two-layer paper device, which uses nanoparticles that target the SARS-CoV-2 virus. If the paper turns red, it indicates a positive test.

“That’s why we started with paper, which is something very biodegradable, which is easy to use, which has minimal impact on the environment,” he said.

The positive, left, and negative, right, COVID-19 antigen rapid tests are shown here. Rapid test results are not provided to public health officials in all provinces, and experts say there should be a way to report them. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

So far, lab results show the strips to be very accurate, but human trials are still needed.

“What we’re trying to address here is the consciousness within our society to manage COVID in a more meaningful way,” Mitra said.

“Let it become the responsibility of individual citizens to do these tests themselves, so that they not only protect themselves, but also protect the community around them.”

PCR tests down

Previously, experts said abandoning COVID-19 testing leaves us vulnerable to future variants. The level of PCR testing in Canada continues to drop dramatically, while the test positivity rate is around 17%.

At the beginning of January, around 150,000 PCR tests were carried out daily. Wednesday, that Number was around 65,000.

The first wave of Omicron overwhelmed testing and provided a rationale for limiting the availability of PCR, said Dr. David Naylor, who led the federal investigation into the 2003 SARS outbreak and co-chairs the task force. federal government COVID-19 immunity work.

“Now we have a self-justifying cycle of willful ignorance and passivity: no need to test because we can’t keep up and no need to intervene because we can’t contain it,” he said. declared.

Sushanta Mitra is Executive Director of the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology. (Turgut Yeter/CBC)

Naylor said there was widespread public fatigue with the restrictions, strong corporate pressure to revive the economy and the belief of public health officials that background immunity from vaccinations and infections is likely. limit the impact of successive waves of COVID-19.

“I am very concerned about the unmeasured toll of this phase of the pandemic. However, I do not see public health officials and political leaders changing course in the weeks ahead.”

A need to keep testing and reporting: experts

This week, the head of the World Health Organization urged countries to continue monitoring coronavirus infections, Reuters reported.

“As many countries reduce testing, the WHO is receiving less and less information on transmission and sequence,” Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Tuesday at the UN agency’s headquarters in Geneva.

“It makes us increasingly blind to patterns of transmission and evolution,” he said.

In Canada, testing is “very disjointed,” Barrett said.

Fluent wastewater monitoring only indicates whether virus levels are rising, and while home antigen tests are helpful, they offer no data to public health officials.

Public testing and tracing reveals who should be isolated and enables faster access to COVID-19 treatments, Barrett said.

“It’s very difficult for people right now, especially if they want to have some of that potential power that comes with knowing if you’re positive or not,” she said.

“When we don’t do that kind of tracking and [have] this kind of knowledge gathering about testing, especially PCR and/or antigen reporting, then we lose the ability to better understand the virus. »

Hankins said it’s important to have a platform where people can report their test results.

“A device can make a difference if it includes a website where you report your results, which not all provinces do,” she said. “It certainly helps us get a better idea of ​​what’s going on in the population.

She predicts that future testing will be primarily for clinical purposes to provide people with rapid access to antivirals.

“The test must therefore be accessible [and] it must deliver results immediately,” she said.