September 20, 2021 – The dog cobra is working hard at Miami International Airport, sniffing the masks by American Airlines employees as they make their way through a security checkpoint. If she identifies a specific smell, she will let her handler know by simply sitting down. When This Good Girl Sits, It Means the Cobra Has Detected an Olfactory Signal coronavirus, the virus that causes COVID-19.
Cobra, a Belgian Malinois, is one of two dogs – her companion is a Betta, a Dutch shepherd – working at this checkpoint at Miami International. They are part of a pilot program with the Global Forensics and Justice Center at Florida International University to use detection dogs as a quick screen for people with COVID-19.
Their detection rate is over 98%, and the program has been so successful that it is being extended for another month at the airport.
If these two dogs continue to accurately detect COVID-19, they and other dogs with similar training could be deployed in other places with lots of people moving around, including other airports or schools are also included. In fact, some university classrooms already have COVID-sniffing dogs in use.
But there are some thorny issues involved in building a large brigade of live animals as pathogens, in which the animals retire after the completion of their careers.
“When COVID first arose, we said let’s see if we could train these two dogs to smell the virus or COVID-19,” says Kenneth Furton, PhD, Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Provost, and Executive Vice President at Florida International University.
His team had completed a study of what they call “medical detector dogs,” animals that may be able to detecting the smell of someone having a seizure. This showed them how well the animals could detect other types of disorders.
Training a dog to smell specific odors begins with making them understand the task in general. Furton says that animals are first trained to understand that their job is to detect a scent among many. Once dogs sense this, they can be trained to just about any specific smell.
Furton says he is not aware of the past use of dogs to screen for infectious disease. This could simply be because nothing has happened with the global pace of COVID until recently, forcing humans to turn to their best friends for help.
The cobra and the forest betta begin to learn to identify the presence of a laurel wilt, a mushroom that attack avocado Plant trees and kill them, costing Florida growers millions. With all that expertise under their collars, two dogs need only a few weeks to become good at detecting other odors assigned to them.
training dogs safely
To train cobra and forest betta on COVID-19 smell, Furton’s team first obtains mask samples People hospitalized with COVID and those who did not have the disease. In fighting viruses, people produce certain chemicals that they release every time they breathe. When Furton and his colleagues compared the exhaled components trapped in masks, they found a difference between masks from those with COVID and those without.
After confirming that the exhalations could be COVID-specific, the research team trained four dogs – Cobra, Forest Betta, Hubble and Max – to detect masks from people with COVID among an assortment of mask options . Before this move, however, the researchers ensured that any traces of the active virus were destroyed by ultraviolet light so that the dogs would not become infected.
Each time the dogs correctly selected a mask from a COVID patient, their reward was access to a favorite toy: a red ball to chew on. Although all four dogs performed very well, yes they did, the cobra and the forest betta showed the most accuracy, outperforming their training partners. By its training score, Cobra ranked first with 99.45% accuracy. Despite his name, Furton says, the One Betta was “not a better one”, coming in second place at 98.1%, which is still quite high.
Both dogs are good at their airport screening duty. If one of them sniffs the mask at a checkpoint, the next step is to test the mask owner.
According to Greg Chin, communications director for the Miami-Dade Aviation Department, from August 23 to September 8, the two dogs screened 1,093 people over the course of 8 working days, alerting only one case. The person had tested positive for COVID 2 weeks ago and was returning to work after that quarantine, and after the dog became alert, his rapid test was negative.
Furton says there are also some reports of dogs showing that the test can show positive results before dogs can detect odors more accurately. They hope to expand their study to see how tight the window of dog-based identification is.
For now, the detector dogs are doing so well that the program has been extended for 30 more days, Chin says.
As promising as it sounds, using dogs for screening has some logistical and ethical implications. Training a canine army to deploy to high-volume detection points means that once the job is done, a lot of dogs will need a safe place to retire. In addition, initial training takes several months, Furton says, whereas if a device for screening was developed, manufacturing could be scaled up rapidly to meet demand.
However, dogs may not need to be retired immediately.
“We envision that they could be redeployed for any other type of detection” for another infectious disease, says Furton. But in the end, when working with dogs, he says, “there’s an ethical connection that you don’t have to deal with using tools.”
Although pilot screening is the first airport test at Miami International, dogs have also done this in other locations, including a state emergency operations center in Florida and some university classrooms, Furton says.