Diagnosing COVID-19 could someday be as simple as breathing on your smartphone.

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Diagnosing COVID-19 could someday be as simple as breathing on your smartphone.

Or for others who have been hospitalized with COVID-19 and recovered, a smartphone could help them figure out the lasting effects they have been left with.

At least this is what University of Manitoba Prof. Zahra Moussavi hopes to find out.

The biomedical engineering program and department of psychiatry researcher, as well as the Canada Research Chair in the department of electrical and computer engineering, is doing two research projects aimed at making it simpler to diagnose the novel coronavirus and keep track of its after-effects.

Now, to test out her theories, Moussavi needs volunteers (Zahra.Moussavi@umanitoba.ca).

"Anybody with a smartphone can be part of it," she said.

Officially, the two studies are entitled "A touchless tool to screen for COVID-19 for reopening industries" and "Post-discharge tele-monitoring of coronavirus survivors for long-term impacts and point-of-care."

For the former, Moussavi said she needs 200 volunteers who have been referred to get the swab test — and she needs to get them before too much time passes from the referral.

"We’re looking for anybody tested for COVID-19 within the first five days while waiting for the test results," she said. "If it has been more than a week, that’s no good."

Volunteers will be asked to download an app on their smartphone and record their breathing sounds.

"We will need them to hold the phone close to their mouth and breathe deeply through their mouth for a few seconds," Moussavi said. "We only need five deep breaths."

Moussavi says ‘anybody with a smartphone can be part’ of her research projects. (MIkaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

Moussavi says ‘anybody with a smartphone can be part’ of her research projects. (MIkaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

After that, the app will ask the person some questions including age, gender, and any known respiratory disorder history, before they press the send icon.

Moussavi, already recognized for specializing in respiratory acoustics for detecting sleep apnea and other work in diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease, said the app will send the information anonymously to researchers.

The volunteer will later let them know the results of the swab test.

"We hope the information learned from this study will benefit the society by providing a more accurate tool for COVID-19 screening without the swab fluid test," she said.

"The technology being developed will be useful for other pandemic conditions, including flu or a new virus," she said. "Even when the vaccine comes, I don’t see it providing 100 per cent protection — even the best one is 95 per cent.

"If the tool is proven successful, it can always be used as a screening measure. This can definitely be useful in future."

For the second study, Moussavi needs 20 volunteers who have not only been diagnosed with COVID-19, but were sickened by the virus.

"I need people with COVID who have recovered," she said. "I would prefer people who have been in hospital."

Moussavi said each participant will be given some equipment to hook up to their smartphone for four months to collect blood pressure, heart rate, body temperature and breathing and swallowing sounds. As well, each participant will have video meetings with a research assistant between one to three times a week, depending on the severity of their bout with the virus.

She said such information is being taken because doctors already know patients who have had severe cases of COVID-19 have been left with neurological damage.

Moussavi said, depending on the results of the research, it could allow doctors to be able to easily continue to assess the cognitive status of people after they are discharged.

The study could actually help the volunteers themselves, she said.

"If we find any abnormality in any of the signals that we record during this study, we will immediately let you know and provide a detailed note in case it is needed for your family doctor."


Kevin Rollason

Kevin Rollason

Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.

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