Believe it or not: Dogs can sniff out Covid-19 carriers

Believe it or not: Dogs can sniff out Covid-19 carriers

Dogs trained before to sniff out illicit drugs, explosives, and, lost people, are now also being trained to sniff out Covid-19 carriers. (Benjie Cuaresma)

By Tracy Cabrera

IN the battle against the novel coronavirus or nCoV, we have an unlikely ally—already used to detect drugs and weapons, dogs are now being trained to sniff out when humans have the deadly virus.

In the Latin American country of Chile, dogs are being trained by the police to detect people that may be infected with nCoV by sniffing their sweat.

The dogs—three golden retrievers and a Labrador—are between the ages of four and five and until now they have only been used to sniff out illicit drugs, explosives, and lost people.

The training program is a joint effort by Chile’s national police, known as the Carabiñeros, and health specialists at the Universidad Catolica de Chile. It follows in the footsteps of similar efforts taking place in France.

According to Julio Santelices, head of Chile’s police school of specialties, dogs have 330 million olfactory receptors and an ability to detect smells 50 times better than humans. They can also smell 250 people per hour.

“The virus has no smell, but rather the infection generates metabolic changes” which in turn leads to the release of a particular type of sweat “which is what the dog would detect,” explains Universidad Catolica professor of veterinary epidemiology Fernando Mardones.

Santelices adds that tests in Europe and Dubai have shown a 95 percent efficiency rate in canine detection of Covid-19 cases.

Medical Detection Dogs, a British charity set up in 2008 to harness dogs’ sharp sense of smell to detect human diseases, also started training canines to detect Covid-19 in late March.

“The importance of this scientific study is that it will allow dogs to become bio-detectors, and detect this type of illness at an early stage,” Santelices points out.

In support, Mardones revealed that there is already evidence that dogs can detect diseases such as tuberculosis, parasite infections, and even early stages of cancer.

Previous studies have shown that canines can detect subtle changes in skin temperature, potentially making them useful in determining if a person has a fever. The possibility of contagion from a dog, however, is remote and highly unlikely.

In view of this, health experts hope to have the dogs trained and working in the field by August. The plan is to deploy them with an officer in pedestrian-heavy areas such as train stations and airports, and at health control stations.

Last week, Chile reported 1,836 new cases of Covid-19—the lowest figure so far in two months—bringing the total number of cases since March 3 to 319,493. The viral infection has killed more than 11,000 people, according to the most recent Health Ministry official report, which includes ‘probable’ Covid-19 victims.

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