Breathalysers could be the quickest way of diagnosing Covid-19 in the future, scientists believe.
A British made portable device is under development with the hope of mass production by Christmas.
And France is testing a larger machine on a subset of people also with plans for a more wide-spread roll out by the end of the year.
In Israel, creators behind a ‘very promising’ small breathalyser test say it can give results in 30 seconds.
Research shows that breath contains valuable biological information, also known as biomarkers, that can indicate health and disease.
If proven to work, breathalysers are a non-invasive, quick and cost-effective alternative to the current coronavirus swab tests.
They have the potential to be used to screen people on mass at places like airports, creators say.
However, technology for breathalyser tests so far has struggled to be specific enough about which virus a person is carrying.
And the accuracy of a standard Covid-19 swab test is so far unmatched – although it is not perfect and can produce incorrect results.
It is not clear what the accuracy of a PCR swab test – which is that conducted in every country in the world to detect Covid-19 cases – is.
It would vary between nations, and Public Health England have never disclosed data on its success rate for detecting Covid-19 with PCR swab tests.
NanoScent, the firm making test kits in Israel, said an extensive trial for the presence of live virus delivered results with 85 percent accuracy.
But chief executive officer of NanoScent Oren Gavriely told the news agency AFP the breathalyser would not replace lab tests.
Instead, it was useful as a mass screening tool that could help people gain ‘the confidence to go back and act as normal’.
Mr Gavriely sees the test being used at entrances to concerts and hospitals, or in the aviation industry – noting it was already being piloted a ‘a major European sports venue’.
If the breathalyser result is positive, people should automatically be sent for a lab test, he said.
Nadav Davidovitch, director of the school of public health at the Ben Gurion University in Beersheba, Israel, said NanoScent’s test looked ‘very promising’.
But it would still need regulatory approval – which the creators say could be within months.
Mr Davidovitch added that the handheld device could be useful for mass screening.
Test subjects would inhale through their nose, hold their breath, close one nostril and then exhale through the other, pushing breath through a handheld tube into a small bag called the ‘Air Trap’.
The tube is then plugged into the ‘Scent Reader’, a small rectangular device that whirrs softly as it sucks the air out of the bag.
It is not clear exactly what technology the test uses of the several that exist.
Sterghios Moschos, a molecular biologist at Northumbria University, suspects the team are trialling various methods, including that based on terra-hertz waves.
Dr Moschos told MailOnline: ‘All matter vibrates, and this test would detect vibrations specific to the virus.
‘However, all matter that is similar will vibrate in a similar way. So the chances a virus will vibrate in a different way to another – such as the coronavirus compared with the flu – is very slim.’
Dr Moschos and colleagues at Northumbria University are also developing a breathalyser test using isothermal testing, which looks for the viruses genome in a sample of breathe or saliva.
It is the ‘most likely to work’ when differentiating viruses, Dr Moschos believes.
The scientists are in the process of collecting breath samples from Covid-19 patients at several hospitals globally, including four in Europe, to test if their technology can indeed detect Covid-19 accurately.
‘Everything looks promising,’ Dr Moschos said. ‘If everything goes well we are looking to get mass production of the device by Christmas.’
The small device would be the size of a bottle and would produce results so quickly, a traveller at an airport would get their results ‘by the time they have gone through security’.
Meanwhile, in France, a hospital in the southern city of Lyon is testing a breathalyser machine which is able to produce a result in a matter of seconds, Reuters reports.
The machine is entering a second trial phase after three months of use on dozens of people, among whom about 20 were found to have Covid-19.
Christian George, director of research at the National Centre of Scientific Research at the la Croix-Rousse hospital, said: ‘The machine will register the molecules in the exhaled air and then detects the traces of the sickness.’
Jean-Christophe Richard, head of intensive care at the hospital, said the objective was to have the machine fully operational by the end of the year.
‘This type of quick test means we will have the results straightaway and can then move the patient to the right area of the hospital,’ he said.
‘As we now have a few efficient treatments, the quicker we can diagnose the quicker we can treat them.’
The French hospital have not got confirmation the machine can tell one virus apart from another, according to Dr Moschos.
Dr Moschos told MailOnline: ‘Edinburgh are trying something similar [to France] but the rumours are that it’s unable to tell you what you’re infected with. This has also been the experience in Holland in the past.’
The machine is likely to use look for polyamino acids, which is where a machine looks for viral particles in the saliva exhaled.
Dr Mosochos said: ‘You need so much virus to knocking around to test it. Sensitivity of the test can be very very low.’