Story at a glance
- Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine are conducting a pilot training program using dogs to detect COVID-19.
- Finnish researchers report having trained dogs to differentiate between COVID-19 patient urine samples and healthy urine samples.
- If successful, dogs could be used to screen Americans for the coronavirus as the country reopens.
Humans have relied on dogs’ keen sense of smell for centuries, from hunting to sniffing out bombs and illegal substances. The domesticated animals have up to 300 million smell receptors compared to their owners’ measly 6 million and researchers are hoping to use them to detect the coronavirus.
University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine announced a pilot training program at the end of April using eight scent detection dogs to detect the differences between samples from COVID-19 positive and COVID-19 negative patients.
“The potential impact of these dogs and their capacity to detect COVID-19 could be substantial. This study will harness the dog’s extraordinary ability to support the nation’s COVID-19 surveillance systems, with the goal of reducing community spread,” said Cynthia Otto, professor of Working Dog Sciences and Sports Medicine and director of Penn Vet’s Working Dog Center, in the release.
Otto said these dogs can already detect low concentrations of volatile organic compounds associated with other diseases including ovarian cancer, bacterial infections and nasal tumors. These VOCs are found in blood, saliva and urine samples, which will be collected from patients and children being screened at the University of Pennsylvania’s hospitals.
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A similar trial in Finland bodes well for the Pennsylvania program. Researchers on the veterinary and human medicine faculties at the University of Helsinki reported on May 19 that they had successfully trained medical scent detection dogs to differentiate COVID-19 patient’s urine samples from urine samples of healthy individuals.
"We have solid experience in training disease related scent detection dogs. It was fantastic to see how fast the dogs took to the new smell," research and DogRisk-group leader Anna Hielm-Björkman said in the release.
Before they can train more dogs, the Finnish team is trying to replicate their success to make sure it wasn’t a fluke. They’re also investigating what it is the dogs are actually identifying in the smell and how long that remains in a sample after a person has been infected.
"There are many things that have to be verified and re-verified before we are able to take scent detection into normal practice. We will now re-test the dogs in our randomized double-blinded setting, introducing them to a larger number of patient samples that either have a positive, or a negative [coronavirus] result. Some of the negative samples will be healthy, while others will have other respiratory diseases,” Anu Kantele, professor of infectious diseases at the University of Helsinki, said in the release.
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