Pfizer buys smartphone app that can detect Covid-19 from coughing sounds
SYDNEY - 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 antigen rapid tests.
The app uses artificial intelligence to diagnose a range of respiratory diseases such as asthma, pneumonia and bronchiolitis by analysing the sound of a person's cough. The cough can be spontaneous or voluntary.
It also takes into account self-reported symptoms like 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 persons from their cough, the University of Queensland startup ResApp Health announced earlier this year.
It said its app also had an 80 per cent accuracy rate in identifying negative cases.
In Australia, approved rapid antigen tests must have an accuracy rate of at least 80 per cent.
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.
Last week, Pfizer acquired ResApp Health for A$179 million (S$166 million).
The technology behind the app was developed by Associate Professor Udantha Abeyratne, an expert in biomedical engineering at the University of Queensland.
Dr Abeyratne told The Straits Times 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 apnea 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 hospitalisation numbers have come down, prompting the government to announce last Friday that the mandatory five-day isolation for Covid-19 cases will end on Oct 14.
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.
However, the country's Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly added: "It does not in any way suggest that the pandemic is finished."
The Australian Medical Association has criticised the decision, saying Australia was entering a risky period with people travelling abroad as case numbers in many parts of the world are rising.