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Electronic Nose Has Been Developed That ‘Sniffs Out’ Covid Infections – in Just 80 Seconds

Weizmann Institute of Science

A 3-D printed electronic nose has been developed that ‘sniffs out’ Covid in just seconds.

The device smells chemicals in infected individuals, opening the door to large-scale testing across the world.

Scientists say it could be used at airports, offices, factories, and even football, rugby, and cricket grounds.

Project leader Professor Noam Sobel explained: “The e-nose generates a pattern in every odour—it characterizes the smell of Covid-19.”

Rapid diagnosis is key to bringing the pandemic under control, said Sobel. It will enable people to attend mass gatherings and travel, as well as return to school or work.

The instrument, called Pen3, has been trained to identify VOCs (volatile organic compounds) in the inner nasal passage, rather than in the breath.

Experiments on 503 people—27 of whom were later deemed to have COVID-19—found it was up to 94 percent accurate.

They were recruited at a drive-thru testing station Tel Aviv, organized by Israel’s Red Cross.

Sobel, of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, explained: “Every disease has an odor because they change metabolic processes. Metabolites have a smell.”

Pen3, which is designed to be 3D printed, has a gas unit and an array of sensors. A sampling valve connected to software fits snuggly into the nostril.

An electric lift on a wheelchair raised it to the level of each volunteers’ window. They did not even have to get out of the car.

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Sobel further explained: “When a compound interacts with the sensors, this results in an oxygen exchange that leads to a change in electrical conductivity.”

Dogs can also use their noses to pick up Covid’s scent, but the scale of the crisis makes them an unrealistic tool, he said.

Those who took part in the initial tests were handed the sampling valve and instructed to hold it against a nostril opening for 80 seconds.

They were told to breath normally, but only through their open mouth. They then drove 30 feet to undergo the official PCR COVID-19 test.

“It was a shot in the dark,” said Sobel, “but the payback will be so huge… We get an answer in 80 seconds. We are obtaining meaningful data. We are actually measuring differences between people. We are gaining information that may open a path to rapid diagnosis.”

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The peer-reviewed study in PLOS ONE shows there is a specific COVID-19 “body odor” that is detectable with Pen3.

“Given our current results,” said Sobel, “an optimized ‘eNose’ may be able to provide effective real-time diagnoses in locations such as airports, the work-place, and cultural events,” helping speed up both social and economic recovery. That’s hopeful news indeed.

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