Dogs can be trained to detect SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes coronavirus disease 2019, according to a study published in July. So how soon could dogs be trained to sniff out COVID-19?
For the study, eight dogs “were trained for 1 week to detect saliva or tracheobronchial secretions of SARS-CoV-2 infected patients in a randomised, double-blinded and controlled study.” The dogs’ detection rate was high, and “of 1,012 randomised samples, the dogs achieved an overall average detection rate of 94%.”
The findings could lead to a valid method for screening. Here’s how it would work.
“People infected with the virus release certain volatile olfactory compounds which are detectable by a dog’s superior sense of smell,” explained Dr. Lori M. Teller, a clinical associate professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, in an email on Friday.
“The VOCs may be detected in human sweat, saliva, or urine, so dogs are being trained using samples from people who have tested positive or negative.”
What does training a dog involve? Teller says it takes a tremendous amount of work to train a dog to sniff out disease.
“They need to smell thousands of samples and be rewarded appropriately when correctly identifying a positive sample,” she said.
It could take several weeks to train a dog already trained in scent detection, and it could take several months to train a dog that has had no previous experience with this, Teller said.
“Dogs are uniquely suited for this job because their sense of smell is thousands of times more sensitive than ours, and they enjoy exploring new scents,” wrote Teller.
Dogs are able to sniff out several diseases people get.
“Dogs have been trained to sniff out and warn of several illnesses or health problems in humans, including malaria, cancer, hypoglycemic events in diabetes, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, such as Clostridium difficile, and epileptic seizures,” Teller said.
Teller explained that this research is ongoing, and “it is important to engineers because they are working to create “mechanical” noses that can replicate this function and be used around the world.”