Canines seem to detect coronavirus infections with remarkable accuracy, but researchers say large-scale studies are needed before the approach is scaled up.
Around the world, canines are being trained to detect the whiff of COVID-19 infections. Dog trainers are claiming extraordinary results — in some cases, they say that dogs can detect the virus with almost perfect accuracy. Scientists involved with the efforts suggest that canines could help to control the pandemic because they can screen hundreds of people an hour in busy places such as airports or sports stadiums, and are cheaper to run than conventional testing methods such as the RNA-amplification technique PCR.
But most of these findings have not yet been peer reviewed or published, making it hard for the wider scientific community to evaluate the claims. Researchers working on more conventional viral tests say that initial results from dog groups are intriguing and show promise. But some question whether the process can be scaled up to a level that would allow the animals to make a meaningful impact.
On 3 November, groups working with the animals met in an online workshop called International K9 Team to share preliminary results from experiments and to improve how their research is coordinated.
“No one is saying they can replace a PCR machine, but they could be very promising,” says veterinary neurologist Holger Volk at the University of Veterinary Medicine Hanover in Germany, who is leading an effort to train and study COVID-sniffing dogs and did not speak at the event.
Many sniffer-dog scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 early in the pandemic. They have trained their canines to smell samples, most often of sweat, in sterile containers, and to sit or paw the floor when they detect signs of infection. Trials at airports in the United Arab Emirates, Finland and Lebanon are using dogs to detect COVID-19 in sweat samples from passengers; these are then checked against conventional tests. According to data presented at the K9 meeting, dogs in Finland and Lebanon have identified cases days before conventional tests picked up the virus, suggesting that they can spot infection before symptoms start.
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