Diagnosis of COVID-19 by analysis of breath with gas chromatography-ion mobility spectrometry - a feasibility study

Dorota M Ruszkiewicz, Daniel Sanders, Rachel O'Brien, Frederik Hempel, Matthew J Reed, Ansgar C Riepe, Kenneth Bailie, Emma Brodrick, Kareen Darnley, Richard Ellerkmann, Oliver Mueller, Angelika Skarysz, Michael Truss, Thomas Wortelmann, Simeon Yordanov, C L Paul Thomas, Bernhard Schaaf, Michael Eddleston

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: There is an urgent need to rapidly distinguish COVID-19 from other respiratory conditions, including influenza, at first-presentation. Point-of-care tests not requiring laboratory- support will speed diagnosis and protect health-care staff. We studied the feasibility of using breath-analysis to distinguish these conditions with near-patient gas chromatography-ion mobility spectrometry (GC-IMS).

Methods: Independent observational prevalence studies at Edinburgh, UK, and Dortmund, Germany, recruited adult patients with possible COVID-19 at hospital presentation. Participants gave a single breath-sample for VOC analysis by GC-IMS. COVID-19 infection was identified by transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT- qPCR) of oral/nasal swabs together with clinical-review. Following correction for environmental contaminants, potential COVID-19 breath-biomarkers were identified by multi-variate analysis and comparison to GC-IMS databases. A COVID-19 breath-score based on the relative abundance of a panel of volatile organic compounds was proposed and tested against the cohort data.

Findings: Ninety-eight patients were recruited, of whom 21/33 (63.6%) and 10/65 (15.4%) had COVID-19 in Edinburgh and Dortmund, respectively. Other diagnoses included asthma, COPD, bacterial pneumonia, and cardiac conditions. Multivariate analysis identified aldehydes (ethanal, octanal), ketones (acetone, butanone), and methanol that discriminated COVID-19 from other conditions. An unidentified-feature with significant predictive power for severity/death was isolated in Edinburgh, while heptanal was identified in Dortmund. Differentiation of patients with definite diagnosis (25 and 65) of COVID-19 from non-COVID-19 was possible with 80% and 81.5% accuracy in Edinburgh and Dortmund respectively (sensitivity/specificity 82.4%/75%; area-under-the-receiver- operator-characteristic [AUROC] 0.87 95% CI 0.67 to 1) and Dortmund (sensitivity / specificity 90%/80%; AUROC 0.91 95% CI 0.87 to 1).

Interpretation: These two studies independently indicate that patients with COVID-19 can be rapidly distinguished from patients with other conditions at first healthcare contact. The identity of the marker compounds is consistent with COVID-19 derangement of breath-biochemistry by ketosis, gastrointestinal effects, and inflammatory processes. Development and validation of this approach may allow rapid diagnosis of COVID-19 in the coming endemic flu seasons.

Funding: MR was supported by an NHS Research Scotland Career Researcher Clinician award. DMR was supported by the University of Edinburgh ref COV_29.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)100609
Early online date24 Oct 2020
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 24 Oct 2020


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