COVID Detected K-9: Organization Trains Dogs to Identify Who Has the Virus

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Local K-9 managers have found that dogs can tell if a person is infected with COVID-19 based on their scent – which could have public health impacts.

NEWPORT NEWS, Virginia – Could dogs help stop the spread of COVID-19?

A local K-9 organization has trained dogs to smell and detect COVID-19 positive samples – a breakthrough that could be used for screenings before large events and gatherings.

“I met him with a lot of skepticism, and the dogs proved me wrong,” said James Overton, dog handler and director of business development for American K-9 Prohibition.

Not far from dogs that detect drugs or explosives, Dexter, Miles and Blade are the first class of COVID detection dogs for AK9I, an Isle of Wight K-9 training organization.

Overton said it was new territory, using dogs for infectious disease control.

After months of training, they discovered that someone with the virus smells different.

“We didn’t actually train dogs for the virus itself; we trained dogs to recognize the change in body odor from an infected versus uninfected person,” he said.

You would use a piece of gauze to dab the saliva in your mouth for about 10 to 15 seconds, before placing this sample in a tube.

The dogs then run and alert their handler, often by stopping and sitting down, detecting COVID-19 positive samples among a group of negatives.

“With an astonishing rate of accuracy,” said Overton. “Between 90-94% accuracy.”

For months, Overton and AK9I worked with Bon Secours and Sentara Healthcare to obtain positive and negative COVID-19 samples for dogs for training.

Jan Phillips, vice president of nursing at Bon Secours Mary Immaculate Hospital, said it was a program that nearly all patients and staff have supported.

“It’s a good thing that can come out of something that’s been really stressful,” Phillips said.

To test the results, AK9I conducted a blind peer review trial. Dog handlers were unsure which sample was positive, and a group of medical professionals, vets and officers judged the results.

“The peer review process where there was only one person who knew what was positive really solidified the talent of these dogs for me,” said Phillips. “None of them missed that day, it was 100%.”

Overton said the K-9 projection would be ideal at large events – controls at concerts, stadiums, schools, amusement parks, or boarding cruise ships.

It would be a third option, in addition to proof of vaccination or negative test results, to keep the community safe and the economy open, he said.

“The speed at which dogs are able to do this allows us to make large sites that have a high concentration of people near each other fairly quickly,” Overton said. “They can feel comfortable once inside knowing that everyone here has been tested for COVID-19.”

Dogs are able to sense if someone is COVID positive but asymptomatic, screening up to 30 people in less than a minute.

“It’s another way to ease the burden on the health care system,” Overton said.

The sites would then make the decision on what would happen if someone’s sample was flagged as positive by a dog.

Dexter, Miles and Blade are ready to go to work now, but they will soon be joined by a new class of dogs.

AK9I has just added five more dogs to its COVID-19 detection program. Dogs normally assigned to maritime or police programs are now focused on scenting for the virus.

“And they are just phenomenal, we really don’t deserve these dogs, they are so amazing.”

Overton said the dogs have detected different variants of COVID-19 without issue, signaling that their ability could have lasting effects on public health, even if the virus mutates.

AK9I leaders said they are now seeing if any organizations would like to work with them on COVID-19 screenings at upcoming events.

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