Will we all be sniffed by dogs soon in the fight against corona? It’s possible, because it turns out that tracker dogs can more accurately detect the corona virus than the classic tests. Moreover, it is faster and a lot cheaper. “Training for the dogs will start in December,” says Ghent University researcher Chris Callewaert.
Tracker dogs are probably best known to the general public for their ability to detect drugs and explosives. But they also are able to smell the corona virus. It is not new that tracker dogs have been used for medical purposes. Dogs are already being trained to detect different types of cancer. “Each cancer has its own specific odor and the dogs can smell that. It’s also the case with viral infections and even malaria”, says Chris Callewaert, researcher at Ghent University.
100 per cent success rate
A few months ago in France, a leading dog trainer with the fire brigade discovered that dogs could also detect the corona virus in the sweat of infected people. “He then trained eight dogs. Four of them had a 100 per cent success rate,” explains Callewaert. “From there, we took up the idea in Belgium too.”
Only it turned out that it wasn’t that simple. “We immediately set up a joint task force with the Belgian army, the federal police and the fire brigade because they have dogs and trainers available. Everyone was on the same page; only the politicians weren’t because there was no stable government at that time. Moreover, there was also insufficient knowledge about the possibilities.”
Faster, more accurate and cheaper
In the meantime, knowledge has become available and the government has given the go-ahead for a pilot project. The dogs can detect COVID-19 more accurately than the PCR tests that are now being widely used. “These tests often contain false negative results, because the virus particles quickly break down if they are not transported by liquid nitrogen. You don’t have that with dogs”, the researcher explains. “The dogs can also detect the virus earlier. For a PCR test, it takes about a week for a sufficiently measurable level to be present in the body. With a dog, detection is possible even just one or two days after the infection. A dog can also easily identify asymptomatic people. That is a real game changer.”
In addition, it would also be a lot cheaper if we replaced the PCR tests with tracker dogs. “We are talking about a saving of roughly eight million euros per 42,000 samples. The PCR tests cost so much because they require a lot of people: to administer the test, to transport the test to a lab and then the lab personnel themselves. With tracking dogs, you only need a guide and the dog itself,” explains Callewaert. “And it’s much faster: you’ll know the result within seconds.”
Collect sweat samples
During the initial phase, Chris Callewaert and his colleague Frank Gasthuys have been collecting sweat samples — these were required to teach the dogs the smell of infected people. A lot of samples are needed, from both infected and non-infected people. “The corona virus exudes a specific smell in the sweat. Dogs must learn to detect that smell.”
For the samples, the team has been working with various hospitals and residential care centers. “They’ve been able to provide us with samples of positively tested patients who are prepared to work with us. We store these samples in freezers and the dog trainers can get to work with them a few weeks later”, he says. “Hopefully in 2021 we’ll be ready to start with fourteen tracker dogs who can test people en masse.”
Done with testing?
Will tracking dogs completely replace the tests over the long term? “That is not the goal, but it might be possible in certain situations. In countries such as Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Finland, France and the United Arab Emirates, dogs are already being used at airports and at national borders. People arriving by plane are therefore immediately tested by the dogs.”
In time, this could happen in Belgium too. “There are various options. The airports are of course a first option, but in the long term, testing should also be possible at major events, in residential care centers and even in hospitals”, says Callewaert. “Of course it’s not up to us to decide where the dogs will be used. But the list of possibilities is long.”