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Sri Lankan professor gets $179 million for innovation

A Brisbane-based company invented a smartphone app it says can diagnose Covid-19 and other respiratory illnesses by listening to someone cough

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Colombo: A Brisbane-based company that invented a smartphone app it says can diagnose Covid-19 and other respiratory illnesses by listening to someone cough has been purchased by Pfizer for nearly $180 million.

ResApp Health Ltd uses diagnostic technology developed by Associate Professor Udantha Abeyratne from Sri Lanka and his research team at the University of Queensland to record and analyse a patient’s coughs on a smartphone, The Island newspaper reported on Friday.

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The app also considers the self-reporting of simple symptoms like a runny nose or fever to diagnose and measure the severity of a range of pulmonary diseases, including asthma and pneumonia.

Pfizer, which is one of the world’s largest bio-pharmaceutical companies, offered to buy ResApp earlier this year when the company announced positive results for its Covid-19 screening test, the daily said.

Recent studies had shown the app had a 92 per cent success rate in diagnosing the virus among symptomatic patients, but more clinical trials were needed for it to gain regulatory approval.

A Pfizer spokesperson said they were encouraged by the data they had seen so far and the $179 million acquisition, finalised on Monday, was another move toward enhancing the company’s expertise in digital health.

“We believe the Covid-19 screening tool is the next step to potentially provide new solutions for consumers that aim to quell this disease,” the Island quoted the company as saying.

“We look forward to refining this algorithm further and working with regulators around the world to bring this important product to consumers as quickly as possible.”

Dr Abeyratne, from the School of Information Technology and Electrical Engineering, said the research that led to the breakthrough began more than a decade ago with grant funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

“When I open up my lungs, open up the airway, that is what I call an ‘information super highway’, so I wondered whether it’s possible to use cough sounds, advanced signal processing and AI technology to pick out features,” he was quoted as saying.

“From the very beginning, I had a big vision to develop scalable, cheap technologies to diagnose pulmonary diseases all over the world – not only in remote sub-Saharan Africa, but even in developed urban cities like New York and Brisbane.”

Dr Abeyratne said the smartphone technology, which was developed in consultation with medical practitioners, operates similarly to a doctor using a stethoscope to listen for sounds produced by a patient’s body, the report said.

He said he was hopeful Pfizer’s acquisition of the app will help realise his dream of improving patient outcomes around the world.

“I hope they will be able to diagnose killer diseases like pneumonia in very remote communities in Africa and Asia because they don’t have access to sophisticated hospitals,” he said.

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