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Whistler has been home to COVID breath test trial that could help open up society

More than 500 people in Whistler and North Van have volunteered to be part of COVID-19 detection study
N-COVID Breath Trial 28.16 COURTESY OF VCH
Medical personnel at the Whistler COVID-19 test clinic have been administering a trial that analyzes breath samples to detect the virus. So far, more than 500 volunteers have taken part in both Whistler and North Vancouver.

Whistler has been one of the hubs for a Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) trial that analyzes breath samples to detect COVID-19, which officials say could be used to help open up society more quickly as the pandemic wears on. 

Launched last May, the breath analysis test research was initially meant to detect lung cancer, but with distancing protocols limiting the flow of test patients into hospitals, the trial eventually shifted to see if the test could detect COVID-19. 

Armed with state-of-the-art breathnomics equipment, thanks to a grant from the VCH Research Institute as well as donations from the Leung family and Beedie Foundation, researchers initially tested patients in Vancouver General Hospital and determined they were able to detect COVID-19. 

The detection works by collecting a breath sample and then analyzing it for “volatile organic compounds.” The sample is then run through a highly sensitive machine called a gas chromatography mass spectrometer at the lab, which takes about an hour to produce a result. While researchers are confident in the test’s ability to detect the virus, the goal is to eventually narrow down which specific compounds constitute a COVID-19-positive result. Once that is achieved, the idea is to program smaller, point-of-care machines that would be used at large-scale events and airports to screen for the virus—yielding a result in less than a minute. 

“The importance of this is to create a very accurate and rapid test that can be used,” said researcher Dr. Renelle Myers. “Our vision is that this is a breath test that could help open society again.

“You envision going to a hockey game, a concert, or at school, and as you walk in the door you do a quick breath test and you’re cleared. It would be that rapid.” 

Some airports around the globe have implemented breath-test devices to screen for COVID-19, but Myers said the most common equipment used, called the E-Nose, doesn’t delve into the same diagnostic detail as the locally run test. 

“The difference with ours is we’re not just looking for a yes-no signal. I’m looking for what makes that a yes signal and can I identify what makes it a positive COVID signal and it will have a very high accuracy,” she said. 

So far, more than 500 people in Whistler and on the North Shore have volunteered to take part in the trial while obtaining their standard PCR COVID test. 

Given Whistler’s high prevalence of the virus and its relatively young, healthy population, the resort was an ideal location to set up the trial, said Myers. 

“That’s really what we’re looking for: To narrow down the signal, we want young, healthy people that don’t have any other lung disease that can muddy the signal,” she explained. “Because we call this a discovery study, going to places like Whistler that had at times an elevated positivity rate and very young, healthy people, it was the perfect place to do something.” 

Meanwhile, Whistler’s mass vaccination campaign concluded April 18, though there will be a one-day clinic on April 28 at the conference centre.

The latest case numbers for Whistler, released after press deadline Wednesday, April 21, report ed that between April 12 and 18 the resort had 72 new cases—a significant drop. The week prior (April 6 to April11), VCH identified 179 new cases of COVID-19 in Whistler. From Jan. 1 to April 18, there were 1,759 cases recorded in the Whistler community, of these, 1,688 individuals have recovered. Fourteen people from Whistler have been hospitalized for COVID-19

The majority of cases remain among young adults who live and work in the community, VCH said. The health authority noted household settings and social gatherings continue to be the most common transmission locations.

The Old Spaghetti Factory was also shut down on April 5, part of a new Expedited Workplace Closure order that was put in place this month to allow WorkSafeBC inspectors to shutter a business temporarily as a means to prevent further spread of the virus. When a closure is ordered, WorkSafe BC or VCH’s environmental health officer will work with the business to review and enhance safety plans, as needed, before reopening. 

The Scandinave Spa reopened on Friday, April 16 after being closed temporarily after transmission occurred among staff members. A spokesperson for the spa said staff reorganized some administrative office space to ensure better physical distancing before reopening. 

—This story was updated on April 21 at 5 p.m.