Meet the InspectIR COVID-19 Breathalyzer test just authorized by the FDA

Man providing a sample into the InspectIR COVID-19 Breathalyzer.

Enlarge / Man providing a sample into the InspectIR COVID-19 Breathalyzer. (credit: InspectIR)

The Food and Drug Administration on Thursday announced the authorization of the first breath-based test for COVID-19.

The InspectIR COVID-19 Breathalyzer offers highly accurate test results in about three minutes, without the need for uncomfortable swabbing or collection of hazardous samples. But, before you get your hopes up for a handheld device you can huff into as you head out the door, it’s not quite that convenient. The test requires a high-tech device about the size of a carry-on suitcase—demo versions are literally housed in hard-shelled roll-aboard cases—and it requires a trained technician to operate. To take the test, a person has to sit next to the traveling instrument and blow into it through a straw for about 10 seconds.

The instrument inside the luggage is actually performing gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS), which is a gold-standard analytical technique to finely separate out the components of a mixture. Generally, GC-MS samples are vaporized and mixed with an inert carrier gas before going through a capillary column, which separates out components by their boiling point and polarity. Then those components are ionized and fragmented and further separated out by their mass-to-charge ratios. The end readout is various peaks on a gas chromatogram, with each peak having a unique mass spectrum, allowing for the unambiguous identification of specific compounds.

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