Pfizer Buys App That Diagnoses COVID-19 by Analyzing a Cough’s Sound
Whether you hate it or tolerate it, no one really enjoys sticking a cotton swab up their nose to test for COVID-19. Thankfully, there might soon be another way. Pfizer, a COVID-19 vaccine co-developer and distributor, recently acquired a mobile app that claims to diagnose COVID-19 by analyzing a user’s cough.
The company behind the app is ResApp, an Australian digital health startup. ResApp first began developing a system that could remotely diagnose respiratory illnesses using sound about a decade ago. Pneumonia, asthma, bronchiolitis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) diagnoses were the company’s primary targets at the time. But when the pandemic began in early 2020, ResApp directed its attention toward incorporating COVID-19 diagnoses into its repertoire. Honing this new category took nearly two years. This March, ResApp announced that its 741-patient clinical trial had achieved a 92 percent accuracy rate.
Now, thanks to a $116 million (USD) acquisition, the app is entering Pfizer’s domain. The pharmaceutical and biotech company has been working toward expanding its digital health portfolio, and ResApp’s trial results are promising, especially for a company already intimately familiar with the fight against COVID-19.
Diagnosing respiratory illness often begins with a doctor using a stethoscope to listen to a patient’s lungs. The insights gleaned from this process are limited, however; the sound of the patient’s breathing has to pass through the chest muscles, which muffles certain high-pitched noises. This isn’t the case with coughs—but the differences between a regular cough and one resulting from acute disease are highly nuanced.
“Lungs are directly connected to the atmosphere during respiratory events such as coughs,” according to ResApp. By “listening” to a person’s cough and using an algorithm to compare the recording’s audio signatures with that of known clinical diagnoses, ResApp’s system can determine whether the person has COVID-19 (or any of the other mentioned respiratory diseases). Dr. Udantha Abeyratne, the medical instrumentation and machine learning specialist who largely invented ResApp’s technology, told ABC News the app can function without a network connection.
Now that it’s in the hands of a major distributor, ResApp could change respiratory illness testing across a number of settings. A study from 2014 showed that nearly a third of visits to leading telehealth providers were for acute respiratory diseases. By using ResApp to obtain a diagnosis and send it to one’s general practitioner, patients could save time and the money they’d otherwise spend on copays. Using the app would also prevent hospitality and medical organizations from shelling out thousands for testing supplies while ensuring employees are regularly screened for contagious diseases. ResApp hopes its system could make its way to the developing world, where respiratory illness is a leading cause of death among children.