The corona pandemic has massively changed our everyday life in recent months. “How can we detect an infection as early as possible in order to prevent it from spreading?” This is a question that worries many scientists, authorities, and service providers. Specially trained sniffer dogs could provide an answer: They are able to sniff out whether a person has Covid-19.
Pioneers in London: what does Covid-19 smell like?
Shortly before the coronavirus began to restrict our everyday life more and more in the spring of 2020, the first noses got to work: In Great Britain, a cooperation between the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) with Medical Detection Dogs and Durham University started in March 2020 with the Training of corona detection dogs started. Six animal super noses are in training, mainly Labrador Retrievers and Cocker Spaniels. The goal is ambitious: 250 people per hour should test the four-legged snoopers for corona after six weeks of training.
For now, however, researchers are still looking for healthy and diseased test subjects who are ready to take samples. For this, they should wear breathing masks, a shirt, and socks for several hours. The dogs then receive the utensils as odor samples. The trainers practice with the four-legged friends to recognize corona in the air and body odors of sick people.
A similar project started in April at the University of Pennsylvania in the USA. Eight Labrador Retrievers and a Malinois had their snouts upfront: Using urine and saliva samples, they learned to distinguish the smells of corona sick and healthy people. At the beginning of July, Labrador Blaze achieved a groundbreaking success after ten weeks of training: He recognized body secretions from a Covid-19 patient.
The hardest part is the next step, sniffing whole people who might be carrying the virus. We can look forward to seeing what happens to the American super sniffers!
Covid-19 detection dogs in action: Dubai Airport
Since August, Dubai International Airport has been the first airport in the world to have corona detection dogs in use. They help the employees of the health authorities and the airport to investigate suspected cases and to examine random samples. For this purpose, the employees take odor samples from the crook of the arm of travelers. They let the dogs sniff at these in an isolated room. This has the advantage that travelers and four-legged friends do not meet – because not everyone likes to be sniffed at. In the first few weeks, the sniffer dogs evaluated 400 samples.
Your hit rate was 91 percent.
Corona detection dogs in Finland
Helsinki-Vantaai Airport is the first European airport to work with corona detection dogs. Based on the travelers’ urine samples, the four-legged friends achieved an accuracy of almost 100 percent. They are faster and cheaper than any corona test. As with all projects, the Finnish dogs receive a reward after every correctly recognized positive sample. The researchers do not yet know which scent molecules the four-legged friends recognize in the urine. But a Covid 19 disease not only attacks the lungs, it can also affect blood clotting, kidneys, or digestion. It is possible that the snoopers smell such changes.
Covid-19 sniffers in Germany
What about corona detection dogs in this country? In Germany, the Bundeswehr, in cooperation with the University of Veterinary Medicine Hanover, launched a project with Corona sniffers in May.
The interim results are promising: The eight corona sniffer dogs achieved an accuracy of 94 percent on over 1,000 saliva samples from healthy and sick people. The four-legged friends have experienced service dogs. For example, Lotta and Coyote, who are trained ordnance detection dogs. The two live with their dog handler and receive their training in the service dog school of the Bundeswehr in Ulmen. The University of Veterinary Medicine Hannover is continuing the project and is still looking for test subjects. Because Covid-19 has many faces, the researchers need samples from infected people with and without symptoms, as well as from people who suffer from other respiratory diseases such as bronchitis.
Sniffer dogs in action
With up to 220 million olfactory cells, our four-legged friends perceive much more through the nose than we humans with only around 5 million olfactory cells. Because their mucous membrane is larger, they can also absorb more odor molecules. The dog’s nose is not only used for human health in relation to Corona.
For example, there are cancer detection dogs that detect tumors early on. Your four-legged friend’s fine nose can perceive other illnesses before those affected know that they are sick. Sniffer dogs for malaria or Parkinson’s also have convincing hit rates. So it’s no wonder that scientists came up with the idea of training dogs to become corona detection dogs. It is unknown whether the four-legged friends sniff out the coronavirus or the reactions it triggers in the body. Dogs also serve us, humans, as sniffers in other areas, for example as:
- Explosives detection dogs
- Drug detection dogs
- Disk sniffers
- Corpse detection dogs