An app created by Australian scientists could soon help you diagnose Covid-19 simply by asking you to cough into your phone five times.
ResApp’s smartphone technology was originally developed to detect respiratory conditions such as pneumonia, asthma and bronchiolitis. It works by recording the sound of a patient’s cough and using artificial intelligence to analyse the type and severity of disease.
The app’s Brisbane-based creators said that in a recent and preliminary clinical trial, it accurately identified more than 90% of Covid infections by singling out a signature sound in users’ coughs.
Now, Covid vaccine manufacturer Pfizer has offered AUS $100m (or £75m) – to buy ResApp and its app platforms, a deal that could potentially make this technology available on a wider scale, with the hope of reducing our dependence on swab tests such as lateral flows.
The recent clinical trail involved 741 volunteers, of which more than half were infected with Covid. The app had a 92% success rate in identifying the disease in those who were infected, the ResApp team said, adding that this exceeds the real-world sensitivity of rapid antigen testing.
The app had already trained its algorithm based on a database of 6,000 coughs, with a version currently being used by doctors in Australia, Indonesia and Switzerland to help identify common respiratory conditions such as pneumonia and asthma during remote appointments.
Dr Tony Keating, ResApp’s chief executive, called the Covid trial results a “big breakthrough” for the company in the past couple of months.
“We’ve been able to match coughs down to positive Covid-19 results. So we’ve found signatures in cough sounds that give us an indication of Covid,” he said.
However, the app accuracy drops if a user has no symptoms. “If you are truly asymptomatic, we are a similar accuracy to a rapid antigen test, so we do drop down to 50 to 60% accurate in that case,” Dr Keating said.
Pfizer and ResApp have also agreed a non-exclusive partnership to collaborate on Covid-19 research and development, according to the two companies.
“Pfizer represents a huge opportunity to get this test into people’s hands,” Dr Keating added – but stressed that further clinical trials for the app were needed.
To be approved as a Covid-19 test, regulators would need to be satisfied that the app didn’t give false reassurance to people infected with coronavirus but diagnosed as negative. False positives would be another concern.
ResApp said that negative tests using the app were 99% accurate, but that positive tests should be confirmed using a lateral flow or PCR test.
The Australian team is not the first to try an approach based on identifying in a cough a signature of the disease that caused it.
A Cambridge team is crowdsourcing recordings of coughs and breathing for a separate ‘Covid-19 sounds’ app, while in 2020, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in America also published a paper that claimed to spot 98.5% of infections using a similar method.