COVID-19 Resource Center

COVID-19 Resource Center

Disclosures: Odom John reports no relevant financial disclosures. Please see the study for all other authors’ relevant financial disclosures.
December 15, 2020
2 min read

Q&A: Could a ‘breathalyzer’ test detect SARS-CoV-2 in children?

Disclosures: Odom John reports no relevant financial disclosures. Please see the study for all other authors’ relevant financial disclosures.
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Researchers demonstrated how a “breathalyzer” test could be developed to detect SARS-CoV-2 infection in children.

In a pilot study, the researchers analyzed the breath composition of patients with (n = 11) and without (n = 15) SARS-CoV-2 infection at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and discovered six volatile organic compounds more common in infected patients.

Audrey R. Odom John

According to Audrey R. Odom John, MD, PhD, chief of the hospital’s division of pediatric infectious diseases, and colleagues, “these biomarkers demonstrated 100% sensitivity and 66.6% specificity.”

“Our work provides a solid framework upon which to build a future ‘breathalyzer’ test for SARS-CoV-2 infection in children,” they wrote in the study, which was published on the preprint server medRxiv.

Healio spoke with Odom John, an Infectious Diseases in Children Editorial Board Member, about the work.

Question: What practical clinical use could a SARS-CoV-2 “breathalyzer” have, and will that use disappear once children have access to a vaccine?

Answer: We don’t yet know whether the current generation of vaccines will be safe and effective in children. Even more importantly, we don’t yet know whether the vaccines will prevent asymptomatic infection or asymptomatic transmission. Although I am very hopeful about vaccination for SARS-CoV-2, we will likely still need testing for infection, just as we do for influenza. This may be even more important for low- and middle-income countries, where vaccination efforts may on a slower time scale.

Q: What exactly does the test detect?

A: We are detecting six different compounds in the breath of children with SARS-CoV-2.

Q: Could the breath test also be used to detect asymptomatic infection in adults?

A: We are eager to find out whether our breath test will be useful in asymptomatic or symptomatic adults and have studies ongoing to determine whether this is the case.

Q: A similar test for malaria also has shown promise . Where is that test in development?

A: We have recently completed a validation study on our malaria breathalyzer. Results look very promising — more to come, soon!

Q: What else needs a “breathalyzer?” Influenza?

A: There are so many pediatric infectious and noninfectious diseases that would be great to diagnose with a simple, rapid, easy test! We have many projects in the pipeline, but certainly understanding whether our SARS-CoV-2 test is specific to one specific respiratory virus vs. other respiratory viruses, like influenza, will be very important.