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Sniffer dogs could detect COVID-19 days before symptoms occur

Scientists have discovered that dogs’ powerful sense of smell can enable the animal to sniff out COVID-19 on infected people even before they develop symptoms.

The global research efforts have so far led to two international airports deploying trained sniffer dogs in trials aimed at tracking down travelers with the virus as they pass through the facility.

Last month, Dubai’s main aviation hub became the first airport to use the canines in the vital role, with Finland’s main international airport in Helsinki also launching a trial in recent days.

While it’s already well documented that dogs can be trained to detect conditions such as cancer and diabetes, more research is needed to confirm the effectiveness of their ability to detect the coronavirus, with the current trials aiming to provide more data. However, the early signs are promising.

Speaking to Reuters about the Finnish effort, Anna Hielm-Bjorkman of the University of Helsinki said, “What we’ve seen in our research is that the dogs will find [COVID-19] five days before [the infected patient] gets any clinical symptoms,” adding that the clever canines are coming come close to a 100% success rate in detecting the virus, a figure confirmed by more conventional detection methods carried out later.

The trial involves a passenger wiping their neck with a piece of material before placing it inside a can. It’s then taken to another room where one of the dogs sets about giving it a noncontact sniff before offering a result conveyed though a trained response such as a bark.

The dog doesn’t sniff for the virus itself, but instead detects distinctive chemicals created by the body as it fights the virus.

A springer spaniel during training in the Adelaide research. Kelly Barnes/Getty Images

Researchers from the School of Animal and Veterinary Sciences at the University of Adelaide are also training sniffer dogs to detect COVID-19 in people. The dogs participating in the study are being trained to pick the positive COVID-19 sweat sample from a line-up of samples, using positive reinforcement — in this case time with their favorite toy — for each correct response. Initial results in the Australian test suggest some of the animals are recording a 100% success rate in identifying infected individuals, some of whom displayed no symptoms.

Similar research using dogs is also being carried out by teams in Germany, Spain, and Brazil.

Scientists involved in the research suggest the popular pet could be used not only at airports, but also hospitals, retirement homes, and quarantine facilities in the ongoing fight against the virus.

Drawbacks to using dogs for COVID-19 detection include the fact that it can take at least three months to train a new recruit, although canines with prior sniffing experience could be taught in less than a month. Also, while it’s known that conventional testing methods still fail to offer 100% reliability, a facility that chooses to use dogs to carry out sniff tests would have to be certain of each one’s reliability when it comes to identifying those infected with COVID-19.

If the research concludes that our four-legged friend is indeed an effective weapon against the virus, the procedure could join the other testing methods currently available.

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Trevor Mogg
Contributing Editor
Not so many moons ago, Trevor moved from one tea-loving island nation that drives on the left (Britain) to another (Japan)…
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