Can dogs play a role in the fight against COVID-19?
Maureen Maurer, executive director of the Assistance Dogs of Hawaii, believes they can after entering the third phase of a research study with The Queen’s Medical Center that is teaching dogs to detect the presence of SARS-CoV-2 in people.
Tess, a 3-year-old Labrador retriever that graduated at the top of her training class, is proof of that.
Tess is currently screening incoming surgery patients at The Queen’s Medical Center who must also receive mandatory Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests to determine whether they have COVID-19.
She has screened more than 85 human patients in her second week on the job, and so far, has a 100% accuracy rate, according to Maurer.
“The goal of the study is to show what is possible and help to provide a practical application of this research to help screen people, even those who may be asymptomatic, at places like airports, schools, and hospitals,” said Maurer. “We have been in contact with state and county officials and are hoping to share our protocol with other agencies who can scale this program.”
Four dogs — Tess, Sadie, Yuki, all Labrador retrievers, and Samson, a Golden retriever — have been participating in the study.
The first phase of the study, completed in March, involved training the dogs to detect the scent of COVID-19.
During this time, the dogs learned to distinguish the scent of COVID-19 on samples of human sweat collected from the patient’s neck on pieces of gauze.
Queen’s provided hundreds of volunteer samples taken from patients that were coming in for COVID-19 testing.
The dogs had to learn how to distinguish the scent of COVID-19 from hundreds of other odors emitted through sweat.They sniffed the samples in boxes, which were paired with treats, and a clicker to mark the correct behavior.
They learned pretty quickly, according to Maurer, and phase two of the study, a double-blinded testing phase was completed last month using hundreds of samples of sweat from patients.
Three dogs performed extremely well, she said, with an average sensitivity rate, or correctly identifying positive samples, of close to 100%, and an average specificity rate, or correctly ignoring negative samples, of over 90%.Each of the dogs has a natural alerting behavior upon the detection of the COVID-19 scent, according to Maurer. Tess will paw at the box.
Although Tess is mellow most of the time, she also has high drive and endurance, which makes her ideal for scent detection work. She also enjoys it.
Maurer, who conducted two previous studies teaching dogs to detect bacterial infections using urine samples, said the training process was similar. Sweat, which is not believed to transmit the coronavirus, is easier to collect.
“Dogs just have an incredible sense of smell,” said Maurer. “They have over 300 million scent receptors and they can detect parts per trillion, so we’re just excited about the potential this has to really help in the fight against COVID.”
What the COVID detection dogs could potentially do is provide an additional layer of screening in crowds at places like airports, hospitals, assisted living centers and schools.
“They won’t take the place of PCR tests but they can accurately and efficiently screen hundreds of people per day,” she said.
Dr. Whitney Limm, Chief Physician Executive at Queen’s, said Tess is already well-known to staff at the center as a calm and comforting presence for cancer and pediatric patients.
“At the moment, we are screening people based on history and based on a temperature check,” he said. “This offers an opportunity for non-invasive testing, adding a layer of security without doing something intrusive.”
A protocol is being developed he said, in which a rapid test would follow a positive identification by a COVID detection dog to confirm it.
The Assistance Dogs of Hawaii, a Maui-based nonprofit that primarily trains dogs to assist those with disabilities, plans to submit the study’s results to a peer-reviewed journal.
WANT TO VOLUNTEER?
Assistance Dogs of Hawaii is also looking for samples from Oahu or Maui residents who may have been exposed to the virus or who have family members that recently tested positive to determine how early the dogs can detect the coronavirus. Some of the dogs were able to alert to samples days before someone had tested positive for COVID-19, according to Maurer. Volunteers would offer samples and be tested. If interested, call 298-0167.