For decades, dogs have been on the frontlines of wars and have been wonderful assets in finding survivors in the aftermath of disasters. These animals could possess another important skill that could save human lives — being able to detect COVID-19.
The University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine has announced that it will launch a research initiative that utilizes scent-detection dogs to differentiate between COVID-19-positive and negative patients.
Over the course of three weeks in a laboratory setting, eight dogs will be exposed to COVID-19-positive saliva and urine samples. Once the dogs learn the smell, they must show that the canines can successfully discriminate between COVID-19-positive and COVID-19-negative samples.
Only then can further research be conducted to see whether these animals can identify COVID-19 in infected patients, including those who are asymptomatic. Initial screenings of humans by these trained dogs could begin as soon as July.
“The potential impact of these dogs and their capacity to detect COVID-19 could be substantial,” Cynthia Otto, director of Penn Vet’s Working Dog Center, said in a release. “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.”
Researchers over the years have tried to ramp up the key role dogs can play in disease detection. Studies are increasingly pointing to the fact that dogs can identify malaria, Parkinson’s disease and multiple types of cancer. A dog’s sense of smell is up to 10,000 times more sensitive compared to a human.
“Scent-detection dogs can accurately detect low concentrations of volatile organic compounds, otherwise known as VOCs, associated with various diseases such as ovarian cancer, bacterial infections and nasal tumors,” Otto said. “These VOCs are present in human blood, saliva, urine or breath.”
The risk of COVID-19 transmission from humans to animals seems to be low, as only a handful of cases have been reported since the outbreak. Recently, a dog in North Carolina tested positive for COVID-19, believed to be the first canine case in the U.S. Also, two cats in New York state tested positive last week.
The total cost of the study was not disclosed. Penn Vet noted that it is being funded in part by the new Penn Vet COVID-19 Research Innovation Fund.
Ethen Kim Lieser is a Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek and Arirang TV. He currently resides in Minneapolis.