COVID Detector Dogs Offer Hope

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Training Aids (TADDs) attached to each arm of the wheel allow the dog to safely detect the substance inside without being exposed to the substance.
Photos courtesy of the United States Army

As the world struggles to find a way to get back to normal life amid the pandemic, specially trained dogs may be able to help. The US Army’s Combat Capability Development Command’s Center for Chemical and Biological Biology has been working to train nine dogs to detect the presence of the COVID virus in humans.

Indeed, recent research conducted by the military at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., In conjunction with the Working Dog Center at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, has shown that dogs can be trained to detect the presence of the new coronavirus in the human body. . Dogs learn to recognize proteins created by the human immune system when it responds to a COVID infection.

Eight Labrador retrievers and a Belgian Malinois are currently enrolled in the study, which trains dogs to detect the presence of the virus before a person begins to show symptoms of infection.

“The science behind a dog’s ability to perform tasks such as tracking and searching for missing persons and detecting ovarian cancer in human urine samples is based on the dog’s olfactory acuity and its ability to analyze a volatiloma, ”explains Patricia Buckley, PhD, research scientist at the center. “The volatilome is made up of all the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) produced by an organism. The VOC profile emanating from the body is loaded with information, reflecting an organism’s unique metabolic state, and may even be a diagnosis of disease.

Dr Buckley explains that exploiting VOC signatures from a single organism or population can provide information on health status, biosecurity, biomonitoring and disease transmission.

“The use of detector dogs is well established as a rapid and mobile technology for the detection of VOCs from drugs, explosives and humans,” she says. “However, the next frontier is to harness their scent capacities for disease detection in order to deal with a global public health pandemic.”

In the case of COVID detection, dogs are never actually exposed to the live virus, but rather are trained to detect biomarkers associated with the disease in humans.

This highly specialized training is provided by a working dog trainer based in Hagerstown, Maryland, who specializes in training dogs for tactical work. Training began in May 2020 using a Training Aid Device (TADD), a specialized containment vessel with a gas permeable membrane. The TADD allows dogs to train on potentially hazardous materials, such as human saliva and urine from infected patients, by letting the scent escape the training aid, but not the training aid. workout itself.

A canine candidate for COVID is investigating the scent of a TADD.
A canine candidate for COVID is investigating the scent of a TADD.

The TADD itself was first developed by the Army Center in 2013 as a laboratory device. It has been designed to contain the hazardous substances necessary for the testing and evaluation of new detection equipment. Five years later, it has been redesigned so that it can be used in the field without the fear of breaking it in the event of a fall or rough handling.

The TADD is basically a container, ranging in size from one to eight ounces. A membrane covers its mouth and allows VOCs emitted by a hazardous substance to flow out of the container while the hazardous substance remains inside. This makes TADD safe for dogs trained with live substances, as explosive powders and narcotics stay under the membrane and do not get into a dog’s nose.

Another characteristic of TADD is that its actual components emit very little odor.

“Plastic and rubber materials can be very smelly to dogs and interfere with their detection of the substances we are looking for,” says Michele Maughan, PhD, researcher at the center. “We knew the TADD would be perfect for holding saliva or urine samples from COVID-19 patients because we knew that this odor profile would be quite nuanced and force dogs to grab some very weak VOC molecules. It is important that the containment system, the TADD, does not compete with the target odor.

For COVID detection training, the TADD was attached to a specialized wheel, and the dogs learned for six to nine weeks not only to detect the smell of human COVID biomarkers, but to continue searching for hours at the time. Dogs need to be able to detect in parts per trillion, so they need to have a strong motivation to stay interested.

Army researchers are close to being able to test the dog’s abilities on real humans infected with the virus.

“The human screening portion of the study will take place at the University of Pennsylvania,” Buckley said. “We are always recruiting volunteers to be a part of this important work, especially people who have been tested in the last 48 hours or who are going to be tested.”

The study involves eligible participants wearing a cotton T-shirt overnight that was shipped to them.

The ultimate goal of specially trained COVID detection dogs is to provide screening at entrances to crowded public places such as airports, sports stadiums or at border control posts. If the study is successful, these detector dogs could become part of our daily lives as we fight to defeat this virus.

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