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).


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.
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).


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.

Cite as

Ruszkiewicz, D., Sanders, D., O’Brien, R., Hempel, F., Reed, M., Riepe, A., Baillie, J., Brodrick, E., Darnley, K., Ellerkmann, R., Mueller, O., Skarysz, A., Truss, M., Wortelmann, T., Yordanov, S., Thomas, C., Schaaf, B. & Eddleston, M. 2020, 'Diagnosis of COVID-19 by analysis of breath with gas chromatographyion mobility spectrometry - a feasibility study', EClinicalMedicine, 29, article no: 100609. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eclinm.2020.100609

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Last updated: 17 June 2022
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