A smartphone app that can potentially detect Covid-19 based on the sound of a person’s cough has been bought by Pfizer, amid hopes that the technology could eventually replace PCR and rapid antigen tests.
The app uses artificial intelligence to diagnose a range of respiratory diseases such as asthma, pneumonia and bronchiolitis by analyzing the sound of a person’s cough. The cough can be spontaneous or voluntary.
It also takes into account self-reported symptoms such as a runny nose or fever when diagnosing the severity of the condition.
In a trial of 741 people, of whom 446 had Covid-19, the app accurately identified 92 per cent of infected individuals from their cough, the University of Queensland start-up ResApp Health announced earlier this year.
It said its app also had an 80 percent accuracy rate in identifying negative cases.
In Australia, approved rapid antigen tests must have an accuracy rate of at least 80 percent.
The trial indicated that the app could be useful at airports, sporting stadiums, and aged care facilities, where immediate, and effectively cost-free, screening may be needed.
A few days ago, Pfizer acquired ResApp Health for A$179 million (S$165 million).
The technology behind the app was developed by Associate Professor Udantha Abeyratne, an expert in biomedical engineering from the University of Queensland.
Dr Abeyratne said that he came up with the idea after the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation expressed interest in funding technology that could be used to diagnose pneumonia in children in remote parts of the world where there was no access to doctors.
He received a grant from the foundation and went on to develop the technology.
“When someone coughs, their lungs open up to the atmosphere. That channel gives a lot of information about their lungs.”
Dr Abeyratne said he believed the technology had a range of potential future uses, including at airports and for monitoring respiratory diseases after natural disasters such as flooding and hurricanes.
“I think we are just scratching the surface, there are a lot of things that we want to do,” added Dr Abeyratne, who also created an earlier technology that can detect sleep apnoea from a person’s snoring. This disorder causes breathing to stop and start during sleep.
Australia has suffered several waves of Covid-19 since reopening borders and removing most restrictions late last year.
However, new infections and hospitalization numbers have come down, prompting the government to announce on Friday that the mandatory five-day isolation for Covid-19 cases will end on Oct 14.
The average daily number of new cases in the past week was 5,502, down from more than 50,000 in July. Latest data showed there were 1,724 Covid-19 patients in hospital last Tuesday, compared with more than 5,000 at the start of August.
The federal government said the decision to scrap self-isolation was based on the country’s low rates of Covid-19 transmission and high vaccination rates. More than 90 per cent of Australians aged five and above have had two vaccine doses.
“We are changing our position based upon changing advice and changing circumstances,” Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said on Friday. “There’s not a role for government in running every bit of people’s lives forever.”
However, the country’s chief medical officer Paul Kelly said: “It does not in any way suggest that the pandemic is finished.”
The Australian Medical Association criticized the decision, saying that Australia was entering a risky era as people travel abroad at a time when case numbers in many parts of the world are rising.
“People who are pushing for the isolation periods to be cut are not scientifically literate and are putting the public at risk,” the association’s president, Professor Steve Robson, said.