It’s become increasingly clear that COVID-19 is here to stay, — as a result, companies are looking to make detection and treatment as fast and easy as possible. One new device is the InspectIR COVID-19 breathalyzer test, which received FDA emergency use authorization in April 2022. If you’re wondering how this test works, what is unique about this new healthcare technology or why it matters, read on.
How the InspectIR COVID-19 Breathalyzer Technology Works
This new healthcare technology uses a specific technique called gas chromatography mass-spectrometry. The American Chemical Society likens this groundbreaking tech to a tricorder from Star Trek: a portable method that can analyze the components of a chemical mixture.
Gas chromatography mass-spectrometry is the combination of two separate, powerful techniques. Gas chromatography vaporizes a substance. It’s then usually carried into a tube by an inert gas through a stationary phase, which is often a viscous liquid over a solid. Because gases react differently to passing through a stationary phase, a detector can tell what the different components are and how much of each there is.
In mass spectrometry, the substance is ionized and its components are then separated according to the ratio of their mass to their charge. Once separated into fragments, scientists are able to determine what’s in the sample through a spectrum. These two techniques work together because the gas chromatography separates each component and then mass spectrometry can analyze them individually.
The InspectIR COVID-19 breathalyzer test can identify five separate volatile organic compounds associated with the novel coronavirus in a patient’s breath, thanks to gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. If the test detects any of these, it returns a positive result.
How Does It Compare to Other Tests?
This new healthcare technology can only be administered by professionals, which means it is not a replacement or substitute for at-home antigen or PCR tests. The accuracy rate of this breathalyzer test is high — 91.2% for positive samples and 99.3% for negative samples, which is similar to the accuracy of antigen tests. It was even able to identify COVID-19 in patients displaying no symptoms.
According to FDA documents, the company does recommend following up a positive result with a more accurate molecular test. Negative tests shouldn’t be taken at face value and should instead be considered with the patient’s exposure history. In other words, you may still have COVID-19 even if the test comes back negative.
It’s also less invasive than other tests; patients need only blow into a straw rather than undergo a deep nasal swab. And it returns results faster than many competitors — within three minutes.
What Are the Drawbacks?
There are a few drawbacks to this method, however. First, the technology is relatively untested. Some scientists and doctors think that there needs to be more real-world use of gas chromatography-mass spectrometry as a diagnostic tool before it’s used in real-world testing situations. It’s also only approved for those 18 or older, so it’s not suitable for children.
Additionally, despite the technique being described as “portable,” it still requires suitcase-sized equipment. And each machine can only process a single test at once, which means using this technology for mass testing would be cumbersome. Despite its speed, that makes this technology less than ideal for rapid testing.
Why Does This Matter?
The approval of the InspectIR COVID-19 breathalyzer test is significant for a broader reason, though. This is the first authorized use of a breathalyzer machine as a diagnostic tool. Scientists and researchers have been trying to perfect this technology for years. This is an interesting step forward for the new healthcare technology, and it remains to be seen how well it does in practical, daily use over the next few years.
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