Thompson Rivers University

Researchers look at COVID cough

October 25, 2021

A group of researchers has developed a noninvasive way to prescreen for COVID-19 that’s quick, easily accessible, and discreet. Their technological tool, which analyzes cough sounds through a smartphone and desktop app, helps confirm your diagnosis.

“Testing for COVID-19, as we know it today, is invasive – a nasal swab is inserted, or blood samples are taken,” says lead researcher Dr. Emad Mohammed, TRU assistant professor of software engineering and University of Calgary adjunct assistant professor.

“If someone has done it once, they may be hesitant to get it done again, especially if they’re asymptomatic. It also allows someone who is asymptomatic and who may have COVID to stay home while not alarming those around you.”

Mohammed and his colleagues at the University of Calgary’s Schulich School of Engineering – Mohammad Keyhani, Amir Sanati-Nezhad, Hossein Hejazi and Behrouz Far – believed there was a better way.

“We wanted to come up with a solution that the person could use in isolation and that would be completely independent from the healthcare provider,” says Mohammed. “We knew a mobile device would work because they’re personal, they have a unique signature, so nobody else can use them—not your closest friend or relative.”

Sounds of infection

In a co-authored article published in Nature magazine, the researchers describe how they used audio recordings of individual coughs — some from people who had tested positive for COVID-19, some negative —to differentiate  between a COVID and a non-COVID cough.

Mohammed likens it to someone with a musical ear.

“Suppose there is a musician who is listening to a violin. If he closes his eyes and listens to it, then he will know it’s a violin. Moreover, if there’s something wrong with the violin, he can tell you exactly what’s wrong. This was the natural intuition behind this app.”

Mohammed and his team believe once the app is available, it will change how people prescreen themselves. “It’s not a diagnostic or a prognostic app. It’s a prescreening app, letting you know if there’s something wrong or not, which is important to know. It can also give you peace of mind.”

Next steps

There are still a few steps left before the public can access the tool.

“We are on hold, awaiting bioethics approval through the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary,” says Mohammed. “Once we have that we will deploy the app onto many sites. We look forward to the day we can do that.”

Listen to Mohammed’s conversation with The App Show’s Mike Acerbo on CKNW. Hear the interview (Sept. 12 edition, interview at 17:00)

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