The technology would use “breath signatures” to “rapidly distinguish” the coronavirus from other respiratory illnesses within one minute.
The researchers said their findings, published in The Lancet’s EclinicalMedicine journal, could dramatically improve the experience of taking a test as well as “play a part in restarting the economy”.
The breath test was originally developed as part of a project known as TOXI-Triage which was launched four years ago.
The project, Led by Loughborough University, aimed to determine the most effective ways to examine casualties of chemical, biological, radioactive or nuclear events.
The team involved in the programme repurposed some of the existing technology to design a Covid-19 breath test.
Emma Brodrick, a manager at Imspex Group, a diagnostics company collaborating on the research, said: “Currently the two leading tests for Covid-19 – antigen detection and PCR – both utilise invasive means of taking samples, which can be uncomfortable for the patient and may discourage some from going to get a test they desperately need.
“We are excited to be working with NHS trusts in Scotland, Klinikum Dortmund in Germany and Loughborough University to develop a minimally invasive test that produces results rapidly – indeed in TOXI-Triage, our results were within one minute.”
Paul Thomas, professor of analytical science from Loughborough University’s Department of Chemistry, said the team is encouraged by the findings but added more data is required to develop the test.
He said: “If shown to be reliable, it offers the possibility for rapid identification or exclusion of Covid-19 in emergency departments or primary care that will protect healthcare staff, improve the management of patients and reduce the spread of Covid-19.”
The researchers recruited 98 patients for the small study, 31 of whom had coronavirus.
Their goal was to identify the biomarkers present in the breath of someone affected by the disease and distinguish those signatures from other respiratory tract infections.
Santi Dominguez, chief executive of the Imspex Group, said: “The Imspex Group is very pleased that our groundbreaking technology has delivered these exciting results.
“They offer the possibility not only to dramatically improve people’s experience of taking a Covid-19 test but also to play a part in restarting the economy through rapid screening of large numbers of people at airports and other transportation hubs, for example.
“What will be needed now will be to rapidly acquire more data to continue to develop the test, and institutional and investor support to scale our manufacturing capability.”