They can detect cancer, low blood sugar, drugs, and even bombs. Now, researchers have reason to believe man’s best friend can sniff out COVID-19 as well.
“When you get sick with certain infections, when you get sick with certain conditions, your body chemistry changes and you start to give off what are called volatile compounds which have an odor,” Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said. “Those odors are not something that are really readily apparent to humans, but with more sensitive smelling sensations, for example in dogs, you can use that to kind of discriminate between people who have such a condition or not.”
That’s exactly what these dogs are doing. They’re being placed in airports in different countries and even some basketball games here in the U.S. As businesses look for safe ways to allow customers and fans back in, a growing number of organizations are counting on the animals to identify those who have COVID-19.
The training process for detecting COVID-19 is similar to a process that’s been used for years.
Carol Edwards has been training dogs to sniff out low and high blood sugar levels for diabetics for nearly 15 years.
“We start out beginning teaching just an alerting action, which is generally a paw shake, a paw on the leg, a paw on the side,” Carol Edwards, executive director of Early Alert Canines, explained. “And then we take that alerting motion and connect it to a scent.”
Using these scent samples, Edwards is able to use positive reinforcement training to teach them what to do when they smell a certain scent.
“Most of these dogs have been living with these scents their entire life. They've always smelled them, we just put a purpose to them. When you smell this, I need you to do that and it has a good outcome for you,” she said. “Their noses are phenomenal. They get down to parts per billions. I think the quote we use is they can smell a teaspoon of sugar in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.”
But how accurate can dogs be in detection?
“Where we’re at is the dogs were upwards of about 94, 95 percent which is exactly where we want them to be, the saliva and the urine. We are now moving into the sweat portion of the study and so this is where we’re able to demonstrate that we are able to find a COVID-19 positive person at a standoff distance,” Jenna Gadberry, contract scientist at the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Chemical Biological Center, said.
Dr. Patricia Buckley works with Gadberry at the U.S. Army DEVCOM CBC. They’ve been working with the University of Pennsylvania to train nine COVID-19 detecting dogs since May. With samples from coronavirus-positive hospital patients, they’ve been able to train dogs to detect for future uses in the Army.
“We’re looking to be able to utilize them in large group settings where we’re unable to do things like social distance or have less people there,” Buckley, who is a supervisory biologist, said.
Gadberry said instead of testing 1,000 people, the dogs could whittle a group down to 30 or 50 who need to be tested. “
We don't see the dog as the end all; it’s another tool in the toolbox,” she said.
“With COVID-19 it's likely probably going to be the case that there’s a backup needed when a dog triggers an alert that somebody might be harboring COVID-19, with a test, an antigen test or a PCR test, at least until this is validated,” Adalja said.
Dogs have emotions and can get tired just like any other being, which can impact their ability to be right all the time.
“A dog is a living, breathing, emotional creature. They're never going to be 100% of the time,” Edwards said.
If you've recently tested positive for COVID-19 and would like to help the U.S. Army with their research, you can fill out a form here to determine if you're eligible.