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Scientists hope to develop a COVID-19 breathalyzer

COVID-19 breathalyzer
Posted at 12:12 PM, Feb 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-04 14:12:48-05

INDIANAPOLIS — Last week, the Miami Heat made national headlines when the team used dogs to sniff out fans who may be infected with COVID-19 as they filed into their arena.

It turns out that scientists at the IUPUI School of Engineering and Technology were already using similar techniques to try to create a breathalyzer that can identify the virus in people.

It’s a concept IUPUI professor and director of the Integrated Nanosystems Development Institute Mangilal Agarwal came up with. He wondered if researchers could develop a sensor that can detect the smell of someone’s breath that’s changed by COVID-19.

“Using a breathalyzer in the medical field is kind of new,” Agarwal said.

Agarwal said the scientist started researching last April, and they hope to have a breathalyzer mass-produced by the end of this year.

"We have a confidence that it will be successful, and we can make things happen,” he said.

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So, how does it work?

That’s where teamwork comes in. It starts with getting volunteers to breathe air into bags. Then, the breath samples are carefully transferred to vials.

Then, a machine helps break down the samples into molecules and turns them into digital data.

Mark Woolam is the P.H.D Student who helps with this step.

"I really think our tactic is very unique,” Woolam said.

He said this project is personal.

“We really have a chance to make an impact in the community,” Woolam said,

Woolam's feelings are shared.

“It means a lot because I'm here to work to help people through engineering,” masters student Paula Angarita Rivera said.

Rivera uses her engineer skills to move the project forward by testing the samples on breathalyzer sensors.

“All of the information is going to be collected and sent via Bluetooth,” Rivera said.

Rivera explained that the sensors are so specific that the goal is for the breathalyzer to identify COVID-19, whether someone’s symptomatic or not.

“We put them in our testing chamber, and we test them at different environmental parameters,” Rivera said.

The goal is to get the prototype right. Woolam said they hope to "get a result with hopefully over 90% accuracy.”

Assistant Research Professor Amanda Siegel said the breathalyzer is a sign of hope.

"If you want to be around people who are immune-compromised or even elderly, this could maybe help open up nursing homes again” she said.

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It’s valuable research that will help get the community back to a normal, safe, and healthy life.

“There are a lot of benefits of the technology itself, regardless of whether it is for COVID or any other infectious disease,” Agarwal said.

Overall, the concept is nothing new, and people can buy portable blood-alcohol breathalyzers for just $50. Agarwal said the COVID-19 breathalyzer could be around the same price when it’s ready for distribution.

This story was originally published by Megan Shinn on WRTV in Indianapolis.