One of the biggest challenges to battling the rapid spread of COVID-19 is identifying and isolating people who are infected before the symptoms, which usually take between 3 to 13 days, surface. Now, frontline workers may get some help from canines who can “sniff out” the disease even when the patient is asymptomatic, meaning he or she never shows any of the traits associated with COVID-19.
Bio-detection dogs are not a new idea. In the past, canines have been successfully trained to detect several deadly diseases long before the patients displayed any symptoms. These include identifying those with stomach cancer by smelling their urine samples in Japan, and those afflicted with malaria from their foot odor in the Gambia.
Dogs are the natural animal of choice due to their extremely sensitive noses, which are equipped with 300 million scent sensors. In comparison, humans only have 6 million scent sensors! Pooches also have a second smell receptor that we do not possess. Located at the bottom of their nasal passage, the vomeronasal, or Jacobson’s organ, is powerful enough to smell generally undetectable odors. “We could detect a spoonful of sugar in a cup of tea, but a dog could detect a spoonful of sugar in two Olympic-sized swimming pools,” Professor James Logan, head of the department of disease control at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told The Guardian. “It’s that level.”
“If you’ve got a plane with 500 people coming off, 10% may be asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic,” says Guest. “The dog can quickly say, ‘Bang, bang, bang. You, you, you.’ It’s a 0.5-second sniff. The dog won’t make the final decision. The person will have a test. But at the moment, there’s no other way of rapidly screening people like that – especially asymptomatics.”
The scientists have now embarked on the next phase of the trial, which entails exposing the trained dogs to new human samples — some with traces of coronavirus and others without. If the Labradors can detect the infected samples accurately, they will be put to work in busy public areas to help identify people with COVID-19.
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