Specially trained dogs can detect COVID-19

Czech cynologists from the Search and Rescue Czech Republic team have managed to train eight dogs who can tell if you have COVID-19. Detecting the disease is a worldwide problem, which is also recognized by VAFO, who supported the project financially and provided the canine detectors with feed by Brit. We interviewed Gustav Holý, leader of the detector dogs project, on how this globally unique project came about, detection by dogs works and what plans cynologists have with the trained dogs.

On what principle is your method of detection using dogs based?

The testing is based on the use of specially trained dogs that can detect a change in the scent signature of a person infected with COVID-19 through their sense of smell. The advantage of this method of testing is the ease of sampling and the high accuracy of testing. What’s more, detection is not dependent on the type of mutation or whether the patient has symptoms or not. We have also managed to develop and successfully test a new method that does not require a sample and the dog is able to identify the virus directly from the human. The detection of coronavirus with the help of dogs is also tested by other teams from the Czech Republic and abroad, but only our team uses this particular method. We are also the only ones to focus not only on testing but also on the research into the use of detection dogs.


What are the advantages of the method used by your team?

Dog testing is non-invasive, comfortable, cheap and highly reliable. Detection can be done several times faster, but without unpleasant sampling, for example from the nasopharynx. Compared to classical antigen tests, it is also much more accurate. The method can be adapted to be suitable, for example, for school facilities or homes for the elderly. We have already successfully tested sampling and the way in which testing could be put into practice with first and second grade pupils at the Trojská Primary School in Prague.


So how much does testing with this method cost compared to diagnostic tests?

From an operational point of view, these dogs are a state-of-the-art biological detector that offers a highly sensitive real-time sensing system. All without the need to collect, process or analyse samples. Testing with the use of detection dogs is also less costly. The price of one sampling set is 50 CZK, and other costs are highly variable. If a state institution, such as the Police of the Czech Republic, were to decide to test in this way, it could use their current capacities and test thousands of samples with minimal cost. The main advantage remains high reliability. Dogs can also test a large number of samples. The exact number then depends on the capacity of the staff who help with sampling and testing.


To give us an idea, how does the testing work?

Sampling for testing is very easy and can be done by anyone. The test subject applies sampling material (sterile compression) to the upper part of their torso. The specially trained dog will sniff at the test material to determine if the person is positive or negative. When testing odour without sampling, the dog sniffs directly at the patient and determines if the patient is infected with the virus or not.


I imagine that a lot of samples were needed for the training, how did the SAR CZ team get those?

We cooperate, for example, with the Thomayer University Hospital, the University Hospital in Olomouc and with general practitioners, thanks to whom we obtain the samples for our dog training. Cooperation with the Czech Red Cross, which helps with the logistics and transport of samples, is also very important for the team.


How many specially trained dogs does the team already have available?

In total, eight dogs have been trained to be able to detect the presence of the virus in humans with an accuracy of almost 95%, i.e. higher than other testing methods. Other dogs are still in training.


Will it be possible to use this method for testing in companies?

I would like to add that anyone can be tested with this method. We do not need consent or recognition of the method. We have applied for an exemption in accordance with a decree of the Ministry of Health. The Ministry of Industry and Trade has issued a decree on mandatory testing, which is carried out from a decree of the Ministry of Health. In practice, this means that if a subject is interested in doing a test with this method, the method can be used it without any problems because we have the consent of the ethical medical committee. However, if this subject were to be audited on how it carries out mandatory testing, there could be a problem. As long as the subject uses canine detection plus antigen testing, all is well. Once testing is no longer compulsory, this method can be used by anyone who finds it better than the traditional antigen test.

Private companies, such as the project partner VAFO or even state organizations, have shown interest in this method of testing. It could also be applied in school or social facilities. It all depends on the approval of this method by the authorities. Last month we applied for an exemption to use COVID-19 testing by this method, just like the antigen tests, but we have not received any response yet.


Thank you for the interview and our fingers are crossed for the whole SAR CZ team.


Photo: SAR CZ

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