This Dog Is Learning How to Detect Covid-19

Floki, an English springer spaniel that is currently taking part in covid-19 detection training in south Australia. Photo: Kelly Barnes (Getty Images)

Can man’s best friend lend a hand, or a nose, to the fight against the novel coronavirus? The answer might be yes.

There are various ongoing efforts to train sniffer dogs to detect covid-19, the disease caused by coronavirus. If dogs prove to be reliable in detecting the virus, scientists believe that they could provide low-cost, fast and reliable screening. Dogs would no doubt be an important help to their human friends, especially considering the testing problems that have been experienced in many parts of the world, including the U.S.

While we explain how sniffing out covid-19 might work, let us introduce you to Floki, an English springer spaniel in Australia. Floki is currently taking part in covid-19 detection training with researchers from the University of Adelaide.

We Know Dogs Are Better Than Us. They May Even Be Better at Detecting Covid-19.

How, exactly, you may be asking, can dogs detect whether someone has coronavirus? Well, they’re not exactly smelling the virus itself (if the dumb thing did have a smell, I would imagine it smells like sulfur). Past research has indicated that dogs can smell “specific volatile olfactory compounds,” or certain body odors, given off by people who have viral infections, according to the University of Adelaide.

The Key Is in Their Nose

Our body odor often changes when we’re sick. Some people with diabetes are described as smelling slightly like rotten apples, which is caused by low concentrations of acetone in their breath, per CNN. Meanwhile, people with yellow fever are said to smell like a butcher’s shop. These scents, which can be subtle, may not always be apparent to other people, but dogs are well-equipped to suss them out.

Dogs Can Detect the Changes Your Body Produces When It’s Sick

Dogs have 50 times as many smell receptors as humans do, and they have a proven ability to detect drugs, explosives, and diseases. This last bit is especially important. The Washington Post reports that dogs have already been able to detect cancer, shifts in blood sugar, and parasitic infections like malaria.

There Is an International Team of Researchers Working on Training Dogs to Detect Covid-19

Let’s get back to Floki. He is part of an international consortium led by the National Veterinary School in Alfort, France, that aims to train specialized working dogs to detect covid-19. The University of Adelaide’s Anne-Lise Chaber and Susan Hazel say that the dogs are trained using sweat samples from people infected with covid-19.

According to Chaber and Hazel, when introduced to a line of sweat samples from people infected with covid-19, most dogs can distinguish positive samples from negative samples with 100% accuracy. During training, the dog’s nose goes into a stainless steel cone, which holds the sweat sample in a receptacle behind it. There is no physical contact between the dog’s nose and the sample.

We Don’t Know What Dogs Smell, or What Makes a Positive Covid-19 Sample Different

Although we know that dogs are detecting the volatile organic compounds specific to covid-19 infection, it’s not entirely clear what they smell, or what makes a covid-19 positive sample different. Chaber and Hazel say that considering that the volatile organic compounds given off in sweat samples are a complex mix, it’s likely the dogs are sniffing out a particular profile instead of individual compounds.

But It Looks Like Dogs Are Really Accurate With Their Detection

The researchers in Adelaide say that they will have to collect thousands of negative samples and test them to make sure that they dogs aren’t detecting another virus, such as the common cold or influenza. But according to Chaber and Hazel, dogs in other countries have passed this test “with flying colors.” In Finland, sniffer dogs have even identified presymptomatic people who later tested positive for covid-19.

Using Dogs to Detect Covid-19 Could Be a Big Help During the Pandemic

Chaber and Hazel say that once operational, covid-19 detector dogs in Australia could be used to screen people at airports and borders, as well as staff in elderly care facilities and hospitals. Properly training a dog to detect the novel coronavirus takes time, however. The researchers say it can take six to eight weeks to train a dog that is already trained to detect other scents, or three to six months for a dog that has not received training in detection.

It’s Just Another Reason Why Dogs Are Simply Amazing

Although using dogs to detect covid-19 isn’t a done deal yet, Chaber and Hazel say we shouldn’t be surprised if they are able to do so in the end, since we already know their noses are amazing.

“Their great potential in dealing with the current pandemic is just one of myriad examples of how dogs enrich our lives,” they said.

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