Covid-sniffing dogs are accurate but face hurdles for widespread use

Dog noses are great COVID-19 detectors, according to numerous laboratory studies, and COVID sniffing dogs have already started working in airports and a Miami Heat basketball game.

But some experts in public health and in training scent dogs say that more information and planning are needed to be certain they are accurate in real life situations.

“There are no national standards” for scent dogs, according to Cynthia M. Otto, director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine and one of the authors of a new paper on scent dog use in COVID detection.

And although private groups certify drug-sniffing and bomb and rescue dogs, similar programs for medical detection do not exist, according to the new paper in the journal Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness.

Lois Privor-Dumm, a public health researcher at Johns Hopkins University and the senior author of the paper, said there was no question that dogs have great potential in medical fields. But she wants to explore how they could be deployed on a large scale, such as by the government.

Medical scent detection is more complicated than drug or bomb detection, Otto said. A dog working an airport for drugs or explosive detection has a consistent context and a fairly straightforward target odor. In COVID detection, researchers know that the dogs can distinguish an infected person’s sweat or urine. But they don’t know what chemicals the dog is identifying.

The symptoms of many medical conditions are similar to those of COVID, and dogs that detect scents associated with fever or pneumonia would be ineffective. So the human subjects used in training dogs, Otto said, must include “lots of people that are negative, but might have a cough or might have a fever or other things.” If the dogs mistook flu for COVID, that would obviously be a crucial mistake.

Also, dogs can be trained on sweat, or saliva or urine. In the United Arab Emirates, the dogs worked with urine samples. In Miami, they just walked along a line of people.

Any positive cases of COVID infection that the dogs detect are usually confirmed with a PCR test. A review of research published last week concluded, however, that dogs performed better than the test.

But these are experimental results. So far Otto said she was not aware of published research attesting to the accuracy of dogs sniffing people in a line rather than urine or sweat.

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