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Scientists at IUPUI creating COVID-19 breathalyzer

A breathalyzer could soon detect if you have COVID.
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Posted at 11:29 AM, Feb 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-04 13:07:14-05

INDIANAPOLIS — You might have heard, dogs are being used to sniff and tell if someone’s infected with COVID.

Now, a group of scientists at the IUPUI School of Engineering and Technology is working to figure out what dogs smell, so they can make a breathalyzer that can identify COVID in people.

It’s a concept IUPUI professor and director integrated Nanosystems Development Institute, Mangilal Agarwal, came up with. He wondered if they 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,” said Agarwal

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

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

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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,” said Woolam. He said this project is personal. Woolam said, “We really have a chance to make an impact in the community.”

And his feelings are shared. Masters student, Paula Angarita Rivera, said, “It means a lot because I'm here to work to help people through engineering.”

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

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

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

Assistant Research Professor Amanda Siegel said this breathalyzer is a sign of hope. She said, “So if we had a simple test that could be used. If you want to be around people who are immune-compromised or even elderly, this could maybe help open up nursing homes again.”

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It’s invaluable research that’ll 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 or any other disease condition, early detection,” said Agarwal.

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

So, how can people in the community help?

Well, the team started collecting samples in November. Still, right now, they’re recruiting for participants to give them breath samples, especially people who have no symptoms but had a positive COVID test in the last 3-4 days.