Italy: dogs train to detect COVID in humans

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A sniffer dog during training to learn how to detect COVID-19 through sweat at Campus Bio-Medico in Rome.
Photo: AFP / VNA / CVN

This German Shepherd’s first task this morning is to simply lay his wet nose on a black pipe.”Sniffs”, encourages his teacher, Massimiliano Macera, who rewards his pupil with treats each time his nose hits the pipe.

“She’s figured it out already!” Massimiliano raves about Harlock, who is part of a group of dogs training to spot by scent the virus responsible for the global pandemic.

This project, launched ten days ago at Campus Bio-Medico, a university hospital in the suburbs of Rome, aims to teach dogs to detect the presence of the coronavirus in human sweat.

If proven reliable, this process could become a faster and more economical way to detect the virus at gatherings such as a soccer game or a concert.

“If we have to test a thousand people with a traditional test, it takes about twenty minutes per person”, explains Massimo Ciccozzo, professor of epidemiology. “A dog using his sense of smell would need 30 seconds at most”.

Dogs, with their hypersensitive nose endowed with olfactory receptors, are increasingly used to detect human diseases such as cancer and diabetes.

With the pandemic, researchers have launched several trials with dogs around the world, including Finland, Germany, France and the United Arab Emirates.

But some scientists believe that tests like this have yet to be widely adopted in part because of the lack of scientific studies on the subject.

“A game”

Six dogs belonging to Mr. Macera’s company, SecurityDogs, participate in the program, including Rome, a 4-year-old Dutch Shepherd wearing a black and turquoise harness bearing the inscription “Cov19Dog”.

An instructor and his sniffer dog trained to detect COVID-19 through sweat at Campus Bio-Medico, a teaching hospital on the outskirts of Rome.
Photo: AFP / VNA / CVN

“The first part of training dogs is to make them recognize the volatile organic compounds that characterize COVID”, observes Silvia Angeletti, laboratory director at the hospital.According to her, this study is the first based on both laboratory research and field experimentation.

During the training phase, biological samples were taken from patients sick with the coronavirus treated in the hospital.

When dogs can recognize the virus reliably enough, their noses will be called upon to detect positive cases at the drive-in testing center near the hospital.

Those who volunteer to participate in this experiment will have to hand over a piece of gauze with their sweat, which will be placed in a test room where it can be sniffed by the dogs.

The results of these tests will then be compared to those of traditional tests performed on each patient.

For the moment, Harlock is just having fun in the training room without realizing the potential importance of his work and that of his fellows.

“In the morning they can’t wait to start”, rejoices Mr. Macera. “For them, this work is a game. They are already experts, they do it with a certain naturalness”.

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