The dogs were able to accurately identify the virus with a 94% success rate. Although preliminary, the authors suggest the results may help form a reliable method of screening for the virus.
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“We believe it works because the metabolic processes in a sick patient’s body are completely altered,” Maren von Koeckritz-Blickwede, professor at the University of Veterinary Medicine Hanover, said in a YouTube video.
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“We believe that dogs are able to detect a specific scent.”
Dogs have long been used to sniff out everything from drugs and explosives to other diseases, such as malaria and cancer.
The possibility that they will be able to do the same for COVID-19 is a “staggering development,” said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, infectious disease specialist at Toronto General Hospital, especially as the world grapples with it. how to safely reopen larger interior spaces. like schools.
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If it is scalable, it is “just one more addition to the toolbox in our fight against COVID-19 to protect public places,” he said.
But that doesn’t mean the problem is solved.
“Just because it works in a study doesn’t mean it goes from study to implementation in real scenarios.”
Risk of animal infection
One of the major “wrinkles” in using detection dogs is that they can also catch the virus, said Colin Furness, infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto.
“It happens, it has been documented. We just don’t know how easily this happens, ”he said.
“What’s worrying about the switch from one species to another is that it gives the virus the ability to mutate quite substantially. You don’t want COVID to move through animal populations because it can mutate and boomerang us. ”
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A small number of companion cats and dogs have reportedly been infected with the virus in several countries since the pandemic first exploded, including in the United States, the Netherlands and Hong Kong.
At this point, experts agree that animals play no significant role in the spread of the virus and that the risk of animals transmitting the virus to humans is considered low.
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Cats, however, are said to be a bit more sensitive, according to the World Health Organization.
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“The concerns are extremely low, but they are reality nonetheless,” said Dr. Ian Sandler, CEO of Gray Wolf Animal Health in Toronto and member of the National Issues Committee of the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association.
“This pandemic has done a lot of things scientifically that we could only have seen with bacteriological warfare. We see things moving quickly. … But there are logistical issues that come into play. ”
When humans come in contact with a carrier of the virus, they are asked to self-isolate and watch for symptoms. Should the same be said of a detection dog? Are they tested?
Sandler thinks questions like this are unanswered at this point.
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“Let’s say you have 10 or 20 working assistance dogs. How many domains, how many patients, or how many potential cases can they actually interact with? ” He asked. “What is their ability to supervise large populations of people, given these risks?”
Race against time
While the German study only trained the dogs for a week and found success, other studies show that the time it would take to make scent identification a reality varies.
In the United States, the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine launched a pilot training project in April to study the same. Researchers are using eight dogs over a three week training period, however, the study is still ongoing.
In the UK, trainers have so far seen positive results in a similar study involving six dogs. Dogs are trained to smell the virus on sterilized socks, stockings and face masks worn by NHS staff in London.
Chile has a smaller program, recycling four police dogs to detect the scent of COVID-19 patients. The training, if successful, could last anywhere from two weeks to eight months, the Catholic University of Chile told CNN.
The time it will take to train dogs is one obstacle, experts agree, but rallying enough trained dogs to take on them globally is another.
“There has always been a supply issue with the dogs,” Sandler said. “These needs are only increasing as service animals play an increasingly important and valuable role in society for people with other specific needs.
The use of dogs will clash with scientific development, Sandler added.
In addition to blood tests, which can take up to 24 hours to produce results, faster detection is needed. But Sandler said the technology could move faster in this case. He pointed to a coronavirus breathalyzer under development by an Israeli company that touts test results in 30 seconds.
“The question becomes, as technology escalates very quickly to find safe, efficient, and accurate ways to quickly and rapidly detect COVID-19, will there really be a need for detection dogs in the first place? “
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Not to mention that “the race is on” against a vaccine, Furness added.
“How long would it take to train dogs in all schools across Canada?” Probably longer than it takes to get the vaccine. “
More research is needed
There are viable scenarios in which a detection dog could come into play – if the risks are properly weighed and considered, experts agree.
German researchers believe the method could be introduced in public spaces such as airports, sporting events, borders and other mass gatherings as an “alternative or supplement” to laboratory tests.
It’s possible, said Bogoch, but it’s unlikely to happen anytime soon.
Holger Volk, director of the university’s department of small animal medicine, said it had to be “perfectly clear that this study is just a pilot.”
The samples the sniffer dogs have been tested with have been rendered chemically harmless, raising the question of whether dogs can detect cases of active coronavirus in humans.
“There’s a lot of potential to go further,” said Volk, “to really use these dogs on the court. ”
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