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Vancouver researchers working on rapid COVID-19 breath test

Last Updated Mar 17, 2021 at 1:44 pm PDT

The SARS-CoV-2 virus particles, which cause COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells cultured in a lab in a 2020 electron microscope image provided by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases - Rocky Mountain Laboratories. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-HO-NIAID-RML, *MANDATORY CREDIT*

Researchers were initially working on a test to help detect lung cancer, saw potential to detect COVID-19

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – A team at the BC Cancer Research Institute in Vancouver is developing a rapid COVID-19 breath test, which could deliver results in as little as one minute.

“Originally, we were developing a breath analysis test to detect early lung cancer,” said Dr. Stephen Lam, one of two doctors behind the research. “But the same methodology can also be used to detect infection, as well. That’s why we transferred our technology to detect COVID-19.”

“Essentially, the virus causes a metabolic disturbance in the upper airways, and later on, in the lower airways — in the lungs,” he explains. “This metabolic process can be reflected by what we call ‘volatile organic chemicals’ — compounds in the breath — that we can detect.”

Lam says the test is simple, and involves breathing into a small tube. He adds it could be useful for things like weddings and other gatherings in our “new normal.”

“We can detect infection within one or two minutes,” Lam said. “So, that would be a very rapid test. It can mass screen people, very similar to when we go through the airport and someone swipes our computer to see whether there are any explosives in the computer.”

The test has so far been used on 300 participants, with research still underway.