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Trained dogs ‘could sniff out coronavirus’

29 April 2020

An expert who trained dogs to sniff out cancer is certain they can be trained to detect Covid-19 in the same way.

Jacky Experton had 30 years’ experience with the French Air Force training dogs to sniff out hidden explosives and illicit drugs before he turned to the Kdog programme, training them to detect breast cancer.

Now he is in talks with doctors and hopes to start working soon.

However, he warned that there could be problems.

The first is whether dogs can catch or transmit Covid-19, as evidence is mounting that although cats cannot pass the virus to humans, they can certainly contract it from them.

“We’re not going to put our animals in danger,” he said.

“Dogs detect scents, so could they catch it by sniffing concentrated amounts of the scent during the scent memorisation phase of training?”

There is also the question of whether the virus could be transmitted by people touching the dogs.

“We have to know whether, if the virus is on someone’s hands, it could be transferred to a dog’s fur or collar or harness, and then in turn transferred to another human’s hands.”

He also wonders how easy it would be to detect who has and has not got the coronavirus in a crowd. “Dogs are trained to detect very faint scents, but in a crowd of people, almost everyone would probably have a faint scent of corona about them.”

Mr Experton is certain that a dog could detect corona using samples, as is done for breast cancer.

He would build on the work of the Kdog NGO set up by Isa­belle Fromantin, a nurse caring for cancer patients at Institut Curie in Paris. However, Ms Fromantin told France 3 TV the institute would not take part as it was Covid-19-free and would not risk contamination for any tests.

After stories of pets detecting cancer in owners, initial tests were carried out that showed dogs could detect breast cancer easily, without contact between patient and animal.

Women being tested wear a small fabric patch tucked into their bra, which is then sent to a centre in Haute-Vienne.

The sample is opened and fixed to the small end of a horizontal cone. The dog enters the lab, sniffs inside the cones, and sits down beside any cone that smells positive. A second dog repeats the test. The results are then returned to the clinic.

“Initial trials [on breast cancer] show a success rate of 98% with the first dog, and 100% after the second,” Mr Experton said. “We’re now doing certified clinical trials, the same as for any other medical procedure.”

Work is done under laboratory conditions and dog tests have the advantage of being fast, cheap and non-invasive, without expensive equipment.
They can work remotely, and dogs detect breast cancer before it is visible to any machine.

Mr Experton had some doubts on mass checking, saying: “When we work with dogs checking crowds for explosives, it is much less reliable than when dogs are working in laboratory conditions. I have my reservations about how reliable dogs would be detecting corona in moving crowds.

“Also, cancer is not transmittable, and we can reduce the intensity of the scent in order for a dog to detect cancer in asymptomatic people, which is what we need with corona, too, because what’s the point in detecting corona in a person with symptoms?”

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