Dogs are known for being able to sniff out missing people, drugs, bombs, and cancer, so why not put them to work to detect COVID-19?
New programs at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine (Penn Vet) and the veterinary school l’École Nationale Vétérinaire in Paris, France, are currently testing and training dogs to spot early detection of COVID-19 in humans.
Dogs that can pinpoint the scent of COVID-19 could identify infection in asymptomatic people and could play a valuable role in disease response as people return to work and social-distancing restrictions are relaxed, Penn Vet representatives said in a statement.
Reports document dogs sniffing out cancer since the 1980s. Many cells produce volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that have distinctive odors and are present in human blood, saliva, urine, or breath.
Dogs have up to 300 million scent detectors, compared with around 6 million in people. Studies show that the smell of volatile organic compounds released by cancerous cells is unique enough that dogs’ can spot the presence of cancer cells amid healthy ones.
Most dogs can be trained in about six months to identify the smell of a specific cancer. That same ability could enable dogs to identify and detect COVID-19.
In the Penn Vet program, eight dogs will initially be trained in a laboratory setting.
Over three weeks, they will first learn to recognize the smell of COVID-19 in saliva and urine samples from infected patients, through a technique known as odor imprinting.
The dogs will then be trained with differentiating between those samples and samples collected from people who do not have the disease.
Trained dogs could be ready to start sniffing out COVID-19 in humans by July 2020, according to a Penn Vet statement.
On May 25, 2020, per The Connexion,
French researchers who are training German Shepherds to detect the new coronavirus reported the canines showed a 95% success rate of sniffing out the virus.
The dogs could identify the presence of the virus by smelling sweat samples taken from COVID-19 positive patients. The school partnered up with a local hospital to collect the sweat samples of both infected and non-infected subjects.
According to the report, pieces of cotton wool were soaked in these samples and placed inside metal cones. The canines then had to identify which cones contained the infected or not-infected samples, using their keen sense of smell.
The German Shepherds had to undergo four days of training to reach their success rate. The canines used in the trial were experienced sniffer dogs prior to the experiment. They have been working alongside firefighters to locate missing people and explosives.
Despite the promising results, Prof. Dominique Grandjean, the leader of the research, said that more trials need to be conducted before the French government could utilize the sniffer dogs. Grandjean believes that the canines could provide a quick and cost-effective solution to COVID-19 testing, especially in airports.
“We could make the dogs available to local governments so that people can be tested without pain, for free and eventually, every day,” he was quoted as saying.
Some of the testing methods currently available are polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, which involve swabbing one’s nose or throat, or taking a blood test. The reliability of these tests has been questioned, and they can take time to show results.
Similarly, a group of scientists in the United Kingdom is training dogs to sniff out and detect COVID-19. In previous studies, researchers had successfully trained canines to detect malaria.
Researchers believe that dogs could screen up to 250 people an hour and could be used at airports, hospitals, and businesses. Follow-up testing would still be required.
Time will tell if dogs can consistently and successfully detect COVID-19, but dog lovers around the world are rooting for them.