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COVID-Detecting Dogs Pilot First Airport Program

September 20, 2021 – Cobra, the dog, was hard at work at Miami International Airport sniffing masks turned up by American Airlines employees through a security checkpoint. If she recognizes a particular scent, she lets her handler know by just sitting down. If this good girl is sitting, it means that Cobra is a scent signal from the coronavirus, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Cobra, a Belgian Malinois, is one of two dogs – her partner is One Betta, a Dutch shepherd – who works at this checkpoint at Miami International. They are part of a pilot program with the Global Forensic and Justice Center at Florida International University, and use the tracking dogs as a quick screen for people who have COVID-19.

Their detection rate is high, over 98%, and the program was such a success that it is being extended by another month at the airport.

If these two dogs continue to track COVID-19 accurately, they and other dogs with similar training could be deployed to other locations, with many people coming and going at the same time, including other airports or even schools. In fact, COVID sniffer dogs are already used in some university classrooms.

But building a large brigade of live animals as a disease detector involves some thorny issues, including where the animals retire once their careers are complete.

“When COVID first showed up, we said, ‘Let’s see if we can train these two dogs about the virus or the smell of COVID-19,'” he said. Kenneth Furton, PhD, Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Trial and Executive Vice President at Florida International University.

His team has completed a study with what he calls ‘medical detective dogs’, animals that could possibly discover the smell of someone getting an attack. This showed them how well the animals can detect other diseases.

Training a dog to sniff out specific odors begins to understand the task in general. Furton says the animals are first trained to understand that their job is to detect one odor among many. Once the dogs understand this, they can be trained in just about any specific smell.

In fact, in addition to the detection attacksAccording to reports, dogs were able to identify themselves diabetes and even some cancers, such as ovarian cancer.

Furton says he is not aware of any previous use of dogs to look for infectious diseases. This may be simply because nothing has recently hit the global violence of COVID, which has driven people to consult their best friends for help.

Cobra and One Betta began learning to identify the presence of bay leaf, a fungus what attacks avocado trees and kill them, costing Florida producers millions. With this expertise under their collars, the two dogs only need a few weeks to detect other odors.

The training of the dogs, safe

To train Cobra and One Betta on COVID-19 odors, the Furton team first got mask samples people admitted to hospital with COVID and people who did not have the disease. In the fight against the virus, people produce certain chemicals that they exhale every time they breathe. When Furton and his colleagues compared the exhalation components trapped in the masks, they found differences between masks of people with COVID and those without.

After confirming that exhalation could be COVID-specific, the research team trained four dogs — Cobra, One Betta, Hubble, and Max — to detect masks from people with COVID in a variety of mask choices. Before this step, however, the researchers made sure that any trace of active virus is destroyed by ultraviolet light so that the dogs are not infected.

Each time the dogs accurately selected a COVID patient’s mask, their reward was access to a favorite toy: a red ball to chew on. Although all four dogs performed very well, yes, they did, but Cobra and One Betta showed the most accuracy, better than their training colleagues. From their training points, Cobra took first place, with an accuracy of 99.45%. Despite her name, says Furton, One Betta was “not one better” and came second with 98.1%, which is still quite high.

Both dogs are fine with their screening duties at the airport. If one of them sits down after sniffing a mask at the checkpoint, the next step is to test the mask owner.

From August 23 to September 8, the two dogs screened 1,093 people over 8 business days, warning of only one case, according to Greg Chin, communications director of the Miami-Dade Aviation Department. The person tested positive for COVID 2 weeks ago and is back at work afterwards quarantine, and their rapid test after warning the dog was negative.

Furton says there are some reports of dogs also warning before tests can show a positive result, suggesting the dogs’ odor detection may be more accurate. They hope to expand their study to see how tight the window of detection is on dogs.

For now, the detectives are doing so well that the program has been extended for another 30 days, Chin said.

As promising as it may seem, using dogs for screening has some logistical and ethical confusion. Training a dog’s army to deploy to high-volume detection points means that once the work is completed, many dogs need a safe place to retire. In addition, the initial training takes several months, says Furton, and if a device is developed for the screening, production can probably be increased quickly to meet demand.

However, the dogs do not have to retire immediately.

“We think they could be redeployed to a different kind of detection for a different infectious disease,” says Furton. But ultimately, when he works with dogs, he says, there is ‘a moral connection with which you do not have to deal with instruments’.

Although the pilot study at Miami International is the first airport test, the dogs have also done this work in other locations, including at a state emergency operations center in Florida and in some university classrooms, Furton says.

WebMD Health News


Florida International University: “The human odor study of epileptic patients for the identification of a biomarker for epileptic seizures.”

Kenneth Furton, Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Trial, Executive Vice President, Florida International University.

Greg Chin, Communications Director, Miami-Dade Aviation Department.

© 2021 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.

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