Scientists Find Much Cuter Way to Sniff Out COVID

Canines trained to smell for virus correctly IDed 97% of positive cases, 100% of asymptomatic ones
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 3, 2022 5:25 PM CDT
Researchers: Dogs Can Detect COVID Better Than Some Tests
Stock photo.   (Getty Images/Kira-Yan)

(Newser) – Suspect you have COVID but don't feel up to dragging yourself out to an urgent care for testing? Sometime in the future, you may be able to simply call your dog over. At least, that's what researchers are hoping after they found that dogs trained to sniff out the coronavirus were able to ID the vast majority of subjects who were infected—with a higher success rate than even rapid antigen tests provide, reports NBC News. For the study published Wednesday in PLOS One, researchers used sweat samples from 335 people in Paris, 109 of whom tested positive for COVID on PCR tests, and rewarded dogs with toys whenever they detected a positive sample.

The dogs correctly sniffed out 97% of the positive PCR samples—and, amazingly, saw a 100% success rate when it came to picking up on asymptomatic cases. Past studies have made similar findings, with slightly lower accuracy. Study co-author Dominique Grandjean says that dogs are able to complete this feat because they have a highly sensitive olfactory tool in their noses called the Jacobson's organ, which allows them to smell things humans can't—meaning they can pick up on the specific proteins and volatile organic compounds found in the coronavirus. One caveat: The study was carried out in the early part of 2021, when the original coronavirus was still the main version circulating.

Grandjean—who was doing research on this dog-sniffing technique before the pandemic hit to see if dogs could sniff out colon cancer—says he's now researching how well dogs can pick up on COVID caused by the variants. Another drawback is that the training process is unwieldy, as outside odors can muck up the process, as can the fact that different dogs respond to different rewards, which can slow things down. A perk of this technique, though, per Science News: "The canines are cuter and less invasive than a swab up the nose." Grandjean hopes the study's findings can lead to dogs being trained to sniff out COVID cases in airports, nursing homes, schools, and other well-populated venues.

Others aren't so sure that real-world application is coming anytime soon. "It’s a big step," Dr. Cynthia Otto, who heads up the University of Pennsylvania's Penn Vet Working Dog Center, tells NBC. "I haven't seen anyone who has proposed how to make that transition in a way that's scientific and safe." Even Grandjean concedes the complexities of transitioning a pup's nose from a small sample to an entire person and all of that person's various components and odors. Meaning for those thinking of somehow training their own dogs to become disease sniffers, Grandjean has one message: "Don't try this at home." (Read more discoveries stories.)

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