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Sniffer dogs have 94% success detecting coronavirus in swabs

Trained sniffer dogs can detect coronavirus in human swab samples with 94 per cent success rate, researchers have demonstrated.

Researchers from Germany trained army sniffer dogs to distinguish between samples of fluids from patients infected with SARS-CoV-2 and healthy donors.

COVID-19 sniffer dogs could be used in airports, event and sporting venues and at border crossings as a supplement to lab testing to control the virus’ spread.

Dogs’ amazing sense of smell have long been used by humans to track prey — but such is increasingly been repurposed to detect medical issues.

In fact, canines are known to be able to sniff out diseases including different types of cancer, malaria and bacterial and viral infections.

 

‘I was initially amazed, but then also fascinated by the idea of using sniffer dogs to detect SARS-CoV-2,’ said paper author and virologist Albert Osterhaus of the University of Veterinary Medicine Hanover.

‘It is known that infectious respiratory diseases can release specific volatile organic compounds, he added.

‘This pilot study is likely to show how volatile organic compounds could be used for future test strategies.’

In their study, the researchers trained eight Bundeswehr (German Army) detection dogs over the period of a week to detect the saliva and secretions from the lungs and windpipe of patients who had been infected with SARS-CoV-2.

The team then explored whether dogs could distinguish between the samples from both infected and non-infected individuals in randomised tests where the dogs, their handlers and the supervising researcher did not know which samples was which.

After sniffing 1,012 samples, the researchers reported that the dogs had an accurate detection rate of around 94 per cent — with 157 correct positive identifications, 792 correct reflections of non-infected samples but 33 incorrect results. 

‘Dog odour detection is far better than the general public can imagine,’ said behavioural researcher and Bundeswehr dog trainer Esther Schalke.

‘Nevertheless, we were amazed at how quickly our dogs could be trained to recognise samples from SARS-CoV-2 infected people.’

‘The results of the study are incredibly exciting,’ said paper author and veterinarian Holger Volk, also of the University of Veterinary Medicine Hanover.

‘We have created a solid foundation for future studies to investigate what the dogs smell and whether they can also be used to differentiate between different times of illness or clinical phenotypes.’ 

The full findings of the study were published in the journal BMC Infectious Diseases.

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