PARIS: As many countries begin to emerge from lockdown and take the first tentative steps toward a return to normality after the coronavirus crisis, an unusual experiment is under way in France and Lebanon.
Researchers have been testing whether 20 Belgian malinois dogs can be trained to detect the coronavirus disease, COVID-19, in humans. The results so far suggest that they can, with a very high degree of accuracy.
Dr. Riad Sarkis, a Lebanese digestive surgery surgeon at the French St Joseph University in Beirut, is working on the study with experts from the National Veterinary School of Alfort in France (ENVA), led by chief veterinarian Dominique Grandjean, and the Regional Health Agency in Ajaccio, Corsica.
Grandjean said the idea of training dogs to detect COVID-19 originated in Nosais, a program that has been running at ENVA for 18 months which trains the animals to detect colon cancer, Parkinson’s disease and bladder cancer.
Taking inspiration from a US study at Auburn University in Alabama, in which dogs were used to detect bovine viral diarrhea virus, the researchers decided to test whether the animals can also detect the coronavirus. To do this, they are shown several pieces of gauze with samples of underarm sweat taken from patients, some of them infected with the virus and some not. Sweat is used because, unlike other bodily fluids such as urine or saliva, there is no risk of it contaminating anyone else.
The experiment has been repeated numerous times and the dogs almost always identify the sweat from infected individuals, which gives off a distinctive odor they can detect.
Grandjean said the results have been 95 percent positive, with few errors, and he plans to publish them in a scientific journal. On one occasion, for example, the dogs identified as positive a sample from a person who had tested negative for the virus — but when the sample was sent for additional testing, it turned out the dogs were correct and the patient was, indeed, infected.
It does not take long and does not cost much to train the dogs, Grandjean added. In addition to his collaboration on the research with Sarkis in Lebanon, he said many other countries are interested. Similar tests have already been carried out in the UAE, for example, and Bahrain is also keen. He said that the use of dogs to identify infected individuals might be particularly useful at airports and other busy locations.
Sarkis, the only medical doctor working with the veterinarians on the experiment, said that for more than a decade his own research has focused on the detection of illnesses through the changes they cause in the body’s aroma.
“I think all illnesses are linked to genes,” he said. “We have about 150,000 genes, so any mutation modifies the genetic molecule — the protein — and so each mutation in a body results in an alteration in the smell. That is why it is easy for dogs to learn to identify the different smells.
“I have been working for 12 years on the volatile organic compounds; every individual (has) a specific aromatic smell in their bodies. When cancer alters tissue, it gives the same smell to all cancerous tissue.
“When I visited Paris, I learned from COVID-19 patients that there was something new in their smell. I decided to test the sweat of patients, and dogs that had been trained to recognize the (COVID-19) smell did not make any error. It was 100 percent accurate — better than hospital tests, in which mistakes might be made.”
Sarkis said they had been contacted by health professionals from the UAE and 40 other countries expressing an interest in the research.
“Some of them want to try to change the approach by using samples of saliva or urine,” he said. “I will not agree to that because sweat does not present a risk of contamination. I cannot put staff in danger of being contaminated.
“It would be so easy to put gauze under the arms of traveling passengers and then remove it and present it to the trained dogs. They will give an immediate indication whether the gauze is positive or negative (for coronavirus).”