Dogs Can Detect Covid-19, and We Need Their Help

Dogs can be trained to detect Covid-19 infection with remarkable accuracy

Posted Jul 29, 2020

SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd.
Source: SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd.

Finally we have the first laboratory proof, published in a refereed scientific journal, demonstrating that dogs can detect the novel coronavirus. Almost from the first evidence that Covid-19 virus was spreading around the world, a number of laboratories began to investigate whether dogs could be trained to detect active cases of viral infection. A new report from researchers at the University of Veterinary Medicine Hanover in Germany has appeared in the journal BMC Infectious Diseases which not only confirms that dogs can detect the virus with remarkable accuracy, but also that these detection dogs require only a short intensive training period to become effective.

In this current study, eight detection dogs were trained to discriminate between saliva samples from individuals who were infected with Covid-19 versus those who are not. For this training, the investigators used a specially designed machine with six "scent holes." The whole process was automated, and the machine used a computer-driven algorithm to randomize the samples so that on each trial five of the scent holes contained saliva samples from normal individuals and only one was positive for the virus. For correct detections, the dogs were rewarded with either a bit of food or a few seconds to play with a ball. Remarkably the entire training sequence took only one week, and the investigators reported that "During the presentation of 1012 randomized samples, the dogs achieved an overall detection rate of 94 percent."

If the data from this study are to be believed, that is a remarkable degree of accuracy. Currently there are two tests for Covid-19. There is a blood test which looks for antibodies which indicate that a person is, or was, infected by the virus. However the frontline test that is used to look for active infection is the PCR (polymerise chain reaction) test which is based upon a nasal swab. According to the Center for Disease Control the overall accuracies for these tests tend to range around 95 percent—which is virtually the same that the dogs achieved in this report.

If there are already existing medical tests for Covid-19, one might ask the question, "Why do we need to bother with the process of training virus detection dogs?" Actually, there are some really good benefits which could be obtained if some of these medical detection dogs were available in places where virus outbreaks are likely to occur.

Part of the problem with testing for the coronavirus is the fact that there is limited availability for tests. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that in the U.S. many cities with populations over a million have the potential to test only a few thousand people every day. The PCR tests, which are considered the best and fastest indicators of an active infection, still take 24 hours or more for results to be reported. If one is using a detection dog, the results are immediate.

The value of fast and accurate testing has become increasingly apparent for controlling this pandemic. In South Korea, where tests for the disease were made promptly and readily available when the outbreak first hit, there has been a drastically lower death rate than countries which have responded less promptly. In the most recent reports, only 174 Covid-19 fatalities have been recorded in South Korea out of over 10,000 recorded cases, as compared to 2,921 deaths in the UK out of nearly 34,000 recorded cases. The difference is the availability of testing and the relative speed in which the results were available. Early diagnosis and treatment make a huge difference in survival rate.

Furthermore, there are definite costs associated with testing. Although some testing costs are covered by the government, the government will ultimately be billed for those services. However in many places the costs must be covered by the patient and their insurance company.

Using the state of New York as an example, I consulted the websites of several insurance carriers. In general they indicate that preliminary screening (which could be by telephone or a computerized checklist) was generally free as was the initial visit to a clinic. However, the lab cost for the test depends on your insurance policy. These seem to vary over a wide range of scenarios in which patients were charged anywhere from $100 to $2300.

Again sticking with the state of New York, if you seek out the assistance of a primary care physician, for a patient with mild symptoms in New York City the cost is $235, and for a patient with more severe symptoms is $1220 (with costs varying by primary care provider and insurance company).

Some urgent-care facilities in New York are advertising free or reduced-cost Covid-19 testing while others are still requiring full payment. The average out-of-pocket costs at an urgent care location in New York City is $352 if the patient has moderate symptoms and $1336 if the patient has severe symptoms. If you have to resort to a hospital emergency room for your testing the costs could be $2321 for a patient with moderate symptoms and $3305 for a patient with severe symptoms.

You get the picture: Covid-19 testing is not readily available and it is often not cheap. However, a trained coronavirus detection dog can screen a patient in under a minute at a minimal cost because the whole procedure only involves the dog handler, the detection dog, and someone to record the results.

As of the time this post is being written we are beginning to see the appearance of the second wave of the pandemic. We need all the help we can find in terms of rapid, affordable, and readily available diagnostic tests to identify infected people. The results of this new study seem to suggest that that help may be available in the form of coronavirus detection dogs who can be rapidly trained to quickly identify individuals who may be actively infected with the Covid-19 virus.

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Jendrny, Paula; Schulz, Claudia; Twele, Friederike; Meller, Sebastian; von Köckritz-Blickwede, Maren;  Osterhaus, Albertus Dominicus Marcellinus Erasmus; Ebbers, Janek; Pilchová, Veronika; Pink, Isabell et. al. (2020). Scent dog identification of samples from COVID-19 patients – a pilot study. BMC Infectious Diseases, 20 (1) 536.