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Dogs’ exceptional sense of smell may be the key to the faster, non-invasive detection of SARS-CoV-2 (COVID) infection. In a study published by the peer-reviewed journal PLOS One, it was found that a dog’s smelling abilities can be trained to detect COVID.
According to Dominique Grandjean, one of the leading authors of the study, dogs can smell certain odors that seem odorless to humans because of a special organ called Jacobson’s organ in their noses.
Canines that had been trained to recognize COVID-19 were 97 percent accurate in sniffing out positive cases and about 94 percent accurate in recognizing the virus even when the patients were asymptomatic. Although when it comes to identifying negative samples, which is known as specificity in testing, the dogs are only 91 percent accurate, suggesting some false positives.
Each dog smelled out cones containing sweat samples from participants’ necks and face masks too. A dog would sit in front of a sample it thought was positive for COVID-19 after sniffing it. According to Grandjean, the dogs took around 15 seconds to sort through 10 sweat samples from 10 different individuals with whom neither the dogs nor their human handlers had previously interacted.
The result of the study can be very helpful in detecting COVID cases, but it’s difficult to train dogs to detect COVID in the real world, according to Dr. Cynthia Otto, director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
“The ideal — and I would consider it the Holy Grail — is that the dog is just standing there, a person walks by, and they say, ‘Yes, no, yes, no, yes, no. That eventually could be done, but making sure it’s done with all the proper controls and quality assurances and safety — it’s a big step. I haven’t seen anyone who has proposed how to make that transition in a way that’s scientific and safe,” Otto said.
But at airports in Saudi Arabia, Finland, and the United Arab Emirates, dogs have already assisted in sniffing out COVID in airports, sporting events and schools.