Sniff, sniff. Smells like Covid. Good dog!


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It can sniff the location of a buried land mine. Sniff a human armpit and find its owner a quarter of a mile away. It can even draw conservation researchers to fresh killer whale paws swimming in the ocean.

Now, Canis lupus familiaris – your simple dog – super nose is also detecting COVID-19 in people who may not know they have it.

“It’s noteworthy,” said Ted Lieu Rep., D-Torrance, Los Angeles County, who tabled a bill in the House of Representatives this month to create a pilot program at the Department of Defense to see if dogs are being used to track down COVID the disease can slow the spread of the disease.

In this case, dogs could be used to locate COVID at airports and other travel centers. For example, a dog working at the baggage carousel could mark a traveler as infected with the coronavirus and that person could be given a rapid COVID test.

“The dog allows you to figure out who should take that extra step,” said Lieu.

As for the smell of COVID, “I’m a politician, not a scientist,” he said. “So I have no idea how it works.”

Scientists say that like other diseases and pretty much everything else, the coronavirus has a “volatile organic compound signature.”

That means it smells.

Look at the asparagus. Its smell is not particularly pungent. But many people recognize the sour aroma that asparagus creates in urine. It is the volatile – that is, airborne – signature of the vegetable.

Few people can discern the fleeting signature of a disease. But a retired nurse from Scotland, Joy Milne, has impressed scientists of the world in recent years with her ability to identify Parkinson’s disease in people by their smell – a “kind of woody, musky smell”.

Video: Shuran Huang / Chronicle Special

With 5 million olfactory receptors, “humans actually have an excellent sense of smell,” says Lucia Jacobs, an animal odor expert at UC Berkeley.

But dogs is better. They have 300 million olfactory receptors and a much more complex “nasal skeleton” than humans, said Jacobs.

People have long turned to dogs for help in the odor department. Nowadays, people can use it to locate the droppings of endangered species – for example, giant armadillos in South America or killer whales from the deck of a boat – and track down diseases at an early stage.

“Dogs are used to detect diabetes, epilepsy, and melanoma,” said Jacobs, as well as “colon cancer from farts. So it is obvious that we should get dogs to detect COVID. “

Jacobs said that recognition work doesn’t require a specific breed, although trainers say they prefer enthusiastic dogs who won’t get bored easily. Given that the coronavirus is still on the rise in many countries, Jacobs thought, “We could send millions of Chihuahuas to Brazil to detect COVID.”

Studies of dogs’ ability to sniff out the deadly disease look promising.

A Maryland facility, Tactical Directional Canine, is one of the few places in the country that is already teaching dogs. Owner Pat Nolan began training retrievers for hunting in 1975 and has worked with military dogs for the detection of explosives for special operations teams for the past twelve years.

During the pandemic, he conducted research on dogs’ COVID capabilities with the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the Army’s Development Command Chemical Biological Center. The Army, an advisor at work, envisions using such dogs to quickly detect COVID and other biological threats wherever the military gathers in large groups.

Working dog Tule smells the target on a scent wheel at Tactical Directional Canine in Smithsburg, Md., In June. 21.

Shuran Huang / Special on The Chronicle

In April, Nolan and other researchers published Phase 1 results of the study in PLOS ONE, an expert-reviewed science journal that is available to the public free of charge. It found that their dogs were able to identify the coronavirus 92.5% of the time in a milliliter of urine and in a saliva swab.

Nolan is now training dogs for phase 2: finding the virus on the remains of t-shirts worn by people with COVID-19. The Penn Vet Working Dog Center is asking volunteers to send in their tainted t-shirts. And the army is eagerly awaiting the results.

“The biggest thing for (the Development Command Chemical Biological Center) is how far away can we see a threat? said Jenna Gadberry, a researcher there. “So we moved from these clinical samples to t-shirts. Perhaps, much like the (Transportation Security Administration) uses dogs, we could see a dog running next to people at the airport to find those with COVID.

Nolan and the team work with eight dogs: seven Labrador Retrievers and a Belgian Malinois, a medium-sized herding dog with pointy ears.

The training uses up to four metal carousels, each with 12 arms that protrude like spokes on a wheel. At the tip of each arm, nose-high above the ground, there is a small cup that has been specially developed so that the dogs can safely sniff dangerous substances such as explosives, narcotics or COVID-19.

To train the dogs, some of the 4-ounce mugs contain a t-shirt fragment from a COVID positive individual. Some are empty. But most of them have decoys, like the extras in a police line-up. Some decoys are t-shirt fragments last worn by people who tested negative. Some are the plastic bags that the t-shirts came in. Others are a tempting tidbit designed to be distracting.

The training can last up to 12 weeks.

The other day, a black laboratory called Tikka faced four carousels. Your mission: to find the coronavirus.

Trainer Barry Magner guides the working dog Miley before completing his training at Tactical Directional Canine in Smithsburg, Maryland in June.  21.

Trainer Barry Magner guides the working dog Miley before completing his training at Tactical Directional Canine in Smithsburg, Maryland in June. 21.

Shuran Huang / Special on The Chronicle

On the first carousel, Tikka sniffed every cup. She ignored the empties, the plastic bags, and even the goodies until she reached one that froze her. Inside was a tiny fragment of the disease that has killed more than 600,000 people in the US and 3.8 million around the world.

Nolan whistled and signaled to Tikka that she was right and would be paid. After grabbing her wages, the dog went to the second carousel and – surprise! No virus in every cup.

Tikka moved on to the third. Since she couldn’t find a virus there either, she tried the fourth carousel. When she had half sniffed, she stopped at a cup and stood there as if firmly anchored. The whistle rang and the payment came in nibbles.

“They are amazing,” said Nolan of the dogs. “Although we are making great strides with the vaccine in our country, dogs are cheaper and faster than laboratory tests. There are parts of the world where they don’t have access to finance or laboratories, so trained dogs would be a huge asset. “

If Tikka had picked the wrong mug, Nolan would have counted to three and given her time to think. Had she stayed where she was, Nolan would have said “No, no”, the signal for her to move on.

“It’s not a punishment,” he said. “It’s just that you don’t get paid.”

What causes things to have a certain smell – a volatile organic compound – is the pattern in which these organic chemicals land on receptors in the nose, said Dr. Andrew Goldberg, director of rhinology and sinus surgery at UCSF. If those invisible flight connections land on human nasal receptors in some way, voila, then you know it’s coffee. In another way, it’s blue cheese.

“Think of the pattern like a chord on a piano,” said Goldberg. “If you had twice the number of keys,” the chords could actually be rich – like the extraordinary nasal talents of dogs.

But as masterful as the dogs are, Goldberg said: “I believe in protocols and standardization and scientific rigor. We need to create this framework ”before we can use dogs and their noses to sniff out the world’s COVID carriers.

Rep. Lieu’s pilot program is a step in that direction, said Jacobs, the animal smell expert. “It would be very good for basic research and for world health.”

Lieu said he expected a committee to vote on his bill by the end of the year.

Nanette Asimov is a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @NanetteAsimov



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