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Can dogs sniff out coronavirus?

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Yes, trained sniffer dogs can detect coronavirus on human swab samples with 94% accuracy. Researchers in Germany have trained army dogs to detect coronavirus using the dog’s remarkable sense of smell. It is thought that a cornavirus check by dogs may be used alongside the present laboratory tests in order to test for coronavirus more efficiently. Dogs could be employed at airports, sporting events and other venues and also at border crossings in order to support the existing laboratory testing.

Dogs sniff out the coronavirus

Sniffer dog. Photo: University of Veterinary Medicine Hanover

Dogs are known to be able to sniff out diseases such as cancer, viral infections, malaria and bacterial infections apparently. What I believe to be the lead scientist of the research project, virologist Albert Osterhaus of the University of Veterinary Medicine Hanover, said that he was initially amazed and then fascinated by the idea of sniffer dogs detecting coronavirus.

It appears to be based upon the fact that infectious respiratory diseases release specific volatile organic compounds and it is these which are detected by the dogs.

Eight German army detection dogs were trained for a period of a week using the saliva and secretions from the lungs and windpipes of Covid-19 patients. They were amazed how fast the dogs were trained.

They found that in using 1,012 samples, the dogs had an accuracy in detection of around 94% between the samples from infected and non-infected individuals in randomised tests.

The results have been declared amazing and exciting and are a solid foundation for future research to investigate whether dogs can be used to differentiate between different illnesses. The study has been published in the journal BMC Infectious Diseases.

Some more detail garnered from the published paper

You can go to the published paper by clicking on this link. As mentioned, a dog is able to detect this virus through the volatile organic compounds produced during respiratory infections which creates a specific scent imprint.

The researchers say that eight detection dogs were trained to detect saliva or tracheobronchial secretions. The conclusions are that these preliminary findings indicate that train detection dogs can identify respiratory secretion samples from clinically diseased and hospitalised individuals suffering from the Covid-19 (aka SARS-CoV-2) virus.

As mentioned, the advantages of dogs checking for the viruses that it can be done in a more timely way with a high degree of accuracy. Also the dog can be trained in a week which is remarkable. The sensitivity of dogs to detecting the virus varied between individual dogs and for a specific dog. They believe that this can be partly explained by a dog’s training background, personality traits, signalment and the short training period.

They avoided hospital smells affecting the result by obtaining samples from two different hospitals. Further work needs to be done on reducing the variability and sensitivity to improve detection. In another study which is yet to be published, they say that there is a “nearly 100% VOC specific pattern of SARS-COV-2 infected individuals compared to negative controls”. Comment: I take this to mean that the coronavirus gives off a chemical which has a near 100% certainty in its pattern or type.

They stress that these are preliminary results and are encouraging but further research needs to be conducted before dogs can be employed in the field. They say that “the current pilot study had major limitations which need to be elucidated in future studies”. However, in countries where there is limited access to lab testing, dogs could make a significant contribution to detecting coronavirus in infected people.