USA Pfizer has acquired a Brisbane tech startup for a whopping US$179 million after studies showed the software could identify a COVID-19 infection from a person’s cough, in what has been described as one of the most exciting biotech deals to come from university research.

ResApp Health Limited uses diagnostic technology developed by Associate Professor Udantha Abeyratne and his research team at the University of Queensland (UQ) to record and analyze a patient’s coughs on a smartphone.

UniQuest, the university’s commercial research arm, licensed the ResApp technology in September 2014, and created a startup called ResApp Health Ltd to take the software to the market.

ResApp Health has gone on to raise more than US$29 million to fund the technology’s development.

The technology is diagnostic, recording and analyzing the cough of a person, though it also takes into account self-reported symptoms like a runny nose and a fever too, and returning a positive or negative result within just one minute.

The company caught the eye of pharmaceutical giant Pfizer when a study showed the app has a 92% rate of success in identifying a COVID-positive patient among symptomatic patients.

The technology, if proven to satisfy ongoing clinical trials, could eventually slash the necessity for PCR and rapid antigen tests used worldwide, according to the biotech startup.

In the meantime, ResApp is already approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration and has been used at a federal government-funded COVID-19 respiratory clinic in Brisbane in 2020 with success.

A Pfizer spokesperson said they were encouraged by the data they had seen so far and the US$179 million acquisition finalized 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,” they said.

But the app isn’t limited to detecting COVID-19 cases. It can also determine whether a person has asthma, pneumonia, bronchiolitis, croup, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Indeed, a clinical study of 91 patients by The University of Queensland showed 96% and 90% accuracy for the diagnosis of pneumonia and asthma respectively.

The research software was made possible by grant funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation more than a decade ago and driven by Abeyratne’s vision to diagnose pulmonary diseases all over the world.

A Pfizer spokesperson said ResApp’s solutions in respiratory health align well with their own areas of focus.

The Pfizer acquisition deal includes an R&D license agreement with ResApp to collaborate on Covid-19 products, including a US$3 million up-front license fee and a US$1 million milestone payment based on clinical trial recruitment.

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