CM – Trained Dogs Can Spy Covid-Positive Samples with 96% Accuracy: Study

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A proof-of-concept study published today in PLOS ONE magazine suggests that specially trained detection dogs can detect COVID-19 positive samples with an accuracy of 96 percent.

« This is not an easy one Thing we ask of dogs, « says Cynthia Otto, senior paper writer and director of the Working Dog Center of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine. » Dogs need to be specific to smell the infection, but they also need to generalize the background smells of different people: men and women, adults and children, people of different races and regions. « 

In this first study, the researchers found that the dogs can do this, but the training needs to be done at a great rate Carefully and ideally with many samples. The results feed into another study, which Otto and colleagues have called the « T-Shirt Study », in which dogs are trained to use the volatile organic compounds between the smells of COVID-positive, negative and vaccinated people to distinguish you are walking on a t-shirt that is worn overnight.

« We’re collecting a lot more samples – hundreds or more – in this study than in this first one, and hope the dogs get closer to what could encounter them in a community, « says Ms. Otto.

Through the Working Dog Center, she and her colleagues have years of experience in training dogs with medical detection, including those that can identify ovarian cancer. When the pandemic hit, they used that expertise to design a coronavirus detection study.

Staff Ian Frank of the Perelman School of Medicine and Audrey Odom John of the Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia collected SARS-CoV-2 positive samples of adult and pediatric patients, and specimens from patients who tested negative, to be used as experimental controls. Ms. Otto worked closely with Penn Medicine’s coronavirus expert Susan Weiss to process some of the samples in Penn’s Biosafety Level 2 laboratory to inactivate the virus so the dogs can sniff safely.

Due to workplace shutdowns Because of the pandemic, the researchers did not work with dogs at Penn Vet, but instead worked with Pat Nolan, a trainer with a facility in Maryland.

The study used eight Labrador retrievers and one Belgian Malinois that had not previously done any medical detection work had carried out. First, the researchers trained them to recognize a distinctive scent, a synthetic substance known as a Universal Detection Compound (UDC). They used a « scent wheel » in which each of the 12 ports is loaded with a different sample, and rewarded the dog for responding to the port with UDC.

When the dogs consistently responded to the UDC scent, started the team to train them to respond to urine samples from SARS-CoV-2 positive patients and differentiate positive from negative samples. The negative samples were subjected to the same inactivation treatment – either heat inactivation or detergent inactivation – as the positive samples.

The team processed the results, with assistance from Penn criminologist and statistician Richard Berk, and found that all three dogs after three weeks Training could easily identify SARS-CoV-2-positive samples with an average accuracy of 96%. However, their sensitivity or ability to avoid false negative results was sometimes lower, the researchers believe due to the strict criteria of the study: If the dogs passed a port with a positive sample even once without reaction, this was marked a « Miss » .

The researchers encountered many complicating factors in their study, such as the dog’s tendency to differentiate between actual patients and not between their SARS-CoV-2 infection status. The dogs were also shed from a sample from a patient who tested negative for SARS-CoV-2 but had recently recovered from COVID-19.

« The dogs kept responding to this sample and we kept telling them no again, « says Mrs. Otto. « But obviously there was something else in the patient’s sample that the dogs entered. »

The key lessons from the study were, besides confirming that there is a SARS-CoV-2 odor that dogs can detect that future training should include a large number of different samples and that dogs should not be repeatedly trained on samples from a single person.

« We can do this not only in our COVID training, but also in our cancer work and everyone else the medical identification efforts that we undertake, « says Ms. Otto. « We want to make sure that all steps are in place to ensure quality, reproducibility, validity and safety for the operationalization of our dogs and to start screening them in community settings. »

Cynthia M. Otto is Professor of Working Dog Science & Sports Medicine and Director of the Working Dog Center at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.

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