Asher is eccentric and inquisitive. He loves an audience, likes keeping busy, and howls to be let through doors. He is a six-year-old working Cocker Spaniel, who, with five other furry colleagues, has now been trained to sniff body odor samples from humans to detect COVID-19 infections.
As the Delta variant and other new versions of the SARS-CoV-2 virus emerge, public health agencies are once again recommending masking while employers contemplate mandatory vaccination. While PCR tests remain the "gold standard" of COVID-19 tests, they can take hours to flag infections. To accelerate the process, scientists are turning to a new testing tool: sniffer dogs.
At the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), researchers deployed Asher and five other trained dogs to test sock samples from 200 asymptomatic, infected individuals and 200 healthy individuals. In May, they published the findings of the yearlong study in a preprint, concluding that dogs could identify COVID-19 infections with a high degree of accuracy – they could correctly identify a COVID-positive sample up to 94% of the time and a negative sample up to 92% of the time. The paper has yet to be peer-reviewed.
"Dogs can screen lots of people very quickly – 300 people per dog per hour. This means they could be used in places like airports or public venues like stadiums and maybe even workplaces," says James Logan, who heads the Department of Disease Control at LSHTM, adding that canines can also detect variants of SARS-CoV-2. "We included samples from two variants and the dogs could still detect them."
Detection dogs have been one of the most reliable biosensors for identifying the odor of human disease. According to Gemma Butlin, a spokesperson of Medical Detection Dogs, the UK-based charity that trained canines for the LSHTM study, the olfactory capabilities of dogs have been deployed to detect malaria, Parkinson's disease, different types of cancers, as well as pseudomonas, a type of bacteria known to cause infections in blood, lungs, eyes, and other parts of the human body.
COVID-19 has a distinctive smell — a result of chemicals known as volatile organic compounds released by infected body cells, which give off an odor "fingerprint."
"It's estimated that the percentage of a dog's brain devoted to analyzing odors is 40 times larger than that of a human," says Butlin. "Humans have around 5 million scent receptors dedicated to smell. Dogs have 350 million and can detect odors at parts per trillion. To put this into context, a dog can detect a teaspoon of sugar in a million gallons of water: two Olympic-sized pools full."
According to LSHTM scientists, COVID-19 has a distinctive smell — a result of chemicals known as volatile organic compounds released by infected body cells, which give off an odor "fingerprint." Other studies, too, have revealed that the SARS-CoV-2 virus has a distinct olfactory signature, detectable in the urine, saliva, and sweat of infected individuals. Humans can't smell the disease in these fluids, but dogs can.
"Our research shows that the smell associated with COVID-19 is at least partly due to small and volatile chemicals that are produced by the virus growing in the body or the immune response to the virus or both," said Steve Lindsay, a public health entomologist at Durham University, whose team collaborated with LSHTM for the study. He added, "There is also a further possibility that dogs can actually smell the virus, which is incredible given how small viruses are."
In April this year, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and collaborators published a similar study in the scientific journal PLOS One, revealing that detection dogs could successfully discriminate between urine samples of infected and uninfected individuals. The accuracy rate of canines in this study was 96%. Similarly, last December, French scientists found that dogs were 76-100% effective at identifying individuals with COVID-19 when presented with sweat samples.
Grandjean Dominique, a professor at France's National Veterinary School of Alfort, who led the French study, said that the researchers used two types of dogs — search and rescue dogs, as they can sniff sweat, and explosive detection dogs, because they're often used at airports to find bomb ingredients. Dogs may very well be as good as PCR tests, said Dominique, but the goal, he added, is not to replace these tests with canines.
In France, the government gave the green light to train hundreds of disease detection dogs and deploy them in airports. "They will act as mass pre-test, and only people who are positive will undergo a PCR test to check their level of infection and the kind of variant," says Dominique. He thinks the dogs will be able to decrease the amount of PCR testing and potentially save money.
Since the accuracy rate for bio-detection dogs is fairly high, scientists think they could prove to be a quick diagnosis and mass screening tool, especially at ports, airports, train stations, stadiums, and public gatherings. Countries like Finland, Thailand, UAE, Italy, Chile, India, Australia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, and Mexico are already training and deploying canines for COVID-19 detection. The dogs are trained to sniff the area around a person, and if they find the odor of COVID-19 they will sit or stand back from an individual as a signal that they've identified an infection.
While bio-detection dogs seem promising for cheap, large-volume screening, many of the studies that have been performed to date have been small and in controlled environments. The big question is whether this approach work on people in crowded airports, not just samples of shirts and socks in a lab.
"The next step is 'real world' testing where they [canines] are placed in airports to screen people and see how they perform," says Anna Durbin, professor of international health at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "Testing in real airports with lots of passengers and competing scents will need to be done."
According to Butlin of Medical Detection Dogs, scalability could be a challenge. However, scientists don't intend to have a dog in every waiting room, detecting COVID-19 or other diseases, she said.
"Dogs are the most reliable bio sensors on the planet and they have proven time and time again that they can detect diseases as accurately, if not more so, than current technological diagnostics," said Butlin. "We are learning from them all the time and what their noses know will one day enable the creation an 'E-nose' that does the same job – imagine a day when your mobile phone can tell you that you are unwell."
In an incident that sparked widespread outrage across India in late March, officials in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh sprayed hundreds of migrant workers, including women and children, with a chemical solution to sanitize them, in a misguided attempt to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Since COVID-19 is a respiratory disorder, disinfecting a person's body or clothes cannot protect them from contracting the novel coronavirus, or help in containing the pathogen's spread.
Health officials reportedly doused the group with a diluted mixture of sodium hypochlorite – a bleaching agent harmful to humans, which led to complaints of skin rashes and eye irritation. The opposition termed the instance 'inhuman', compelling the state government to order an investigation into the mass 'chemical bath.'
"I don't think the officials thought this through," says Thomas Abraham, a professor with The University of Hong Kong, and a former consultant for the World Health Organisation (WHO) on risk communication. "Spraying people with bleach can prove to be harmful, and there is no guideline … that recommends it. This was some sort of a kneejerk reaction."
Although spraying individuals with chemicals led to a furor in the South Asian nation owing to its potential dangers, so-called "disinfection tunnels" have sprung up in crowded public places around the world, including malls, offices, airports, railway stations and markets. Touted as mass disinfectants, these tunnels spray individuals with chemical disinfectant liquids, mists or fumes through nozzles for a few seconds, purportedly to sanitize them -- though experts strongly condemn their use. The tunnels have appeared in at least 16 countries: India, Malaysia, Scotland, Albania, Argentina, Colombia, Singapore, China, Pakistan, France, Vietnam, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Chile, Mexico, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. Russian President Vladimir Putin even reportedly has his own tunnel at his residence.
While U.S. visitors to Mexico are "disinfected" through these sanitizing tunnels, there is no evidence that the mechanism is currently in use within the United States. However, the situation could rapidly change with international innovators like RD Pack, an Israeli start-up, pushing for their deployment. Many American and multinational companies like Stretch Structures, Guilio Barbieri and Inflatable Design Works are also producing these systems. As countries gradually ease lockdown restrictions, their demand is on the rise -- despite a stringent warning from the WHO against their potential health hazards.
"Spraying individuals with disinfectants (such as in a tunnel, cabinet, or chamber) is not recommended under any circumstances," the WHO warned in a report on May 15. "This could be physically and psychologically harmful and would not reduce an infected person's ability to spread the virus through droplets or contact. Moreover, spraying individuals with chlorine and other toxic chemicals could result in eye and skin irritation, bronchospasm due to inhalation, and gastrointestinal effects such as nausea and vomiting."
Disinfection tunnels largely spray a diluted mixture of sodium hypochlorite, a chlorine compound commonly known as bleach, often used to disinfect inanimate surfaces. Known for its hazardous properties, the WHO, in a separate advisory on COVID-19, warns that spraying bleach or any other disinfectant on individuals can prove to be poisonous if ingested, and that such substances should be used only to disinfect surfaces.
Considering the effect of sodium hypochlorite on mucous membranes, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, an EU agency focussed on infectious diseases, recommends limited use of the chemical compound even when disinfecting surfaces – only 0.05 percent for cleaning surfaces, and 0.1 percent for toilets and bathroom sinks. The Indian health ministry also cautioned against spraying sodium hypochlorite recently, stating that its inhalation can lead to irritation of mucous membranes of the nose, throat, and respiratory tract.
In addition to the health hazards that such sterilizing systems pose, they have little utility, argues Indian virologist T. Jacob John. Since COVID-19 is a respiratory disorder, disinfecting a person's body or clothes cannot protect them from contracting the novel coronavirus, or help in containing the pathogen's spread.
"It's a respiratory infection, which means that you have the virus in your respiratory tract, and of course, that shows in your throat, therefore saliva, etc.," says John. "The virus does not survive outside the body for a long time, unless it is in freezing temperatures. Disinfecting a person's clothes or their body makes no sense."
Disinfection tunnels have limited, if any, impact on the main modes of coronavirus transmission, adds Craig Janes, director, School of Public Health and Health Systems at Canada's University of Waterloo. He explains that the nature of COVID-19 transmission is primarily from person-to-person, either directly, or via an object that is shared between two individuals. Measures like physical distancing and handwashing take care of these transmission risks.
"My view of these kinds of actions are that they are principally symbolic, indicating to a concerned population that 'something is being done,' to martial support for government or health system efforts," says Janes. "So perhaps a psychological benefit, but I'm not sure that this benefit would outweigh the risks."
"They may make people feel that their risk of infection has been reduced, and also that they do not have to worry about infecting others."
A recent report by Health Care Without Harm (HCWH), an international not-for-profit organization focused on sustainable health care around the world, states that disinfection tunnels have little evidence to demonstrate their efficacy or safety.
"If the goal is to reduce the spread of the virus by decontaminating the exterior clothing, shoes, and skin of the general public, there is no evidence that clothes are an important vector for transmission. If the goal is to attack the virus in the airways, what is the evidence that a 20-30 second external application is efficacious and safe?" the report questions. "The World Health Organization recommends more direct and effective ways to address hand hygiene, with interventions known to be effective."
If an infected person walks through a disinfection tunnel, he would still be infectious, as the chemicals will only disinfect the surfaces, says Gerald Keusch, a professor of medicine and international health at Boston University's Schools of Medicine and Public Health.
"While we know that viruses can be "disinfected" from surfaces and hands, disinfectants can be harmful to health if ingested or inhaled. The underlying principle of medicine is to do no harm, and we always measure benefit against risk when approving interventions. I don't know if this has been followed and assessed with respect to these devices," says Keusch. "It's a really bad idea."
Experts warn that such tunnels may also create a false sense of security, discouraging people from adopting best practice methods like handwashing, social distancing, avoiding crowded places, and using masks to combat the spread of COVID-19.
"They may make people feel that their risk of infection has been reduced, and also that they do not have to worry about infecting others," says Janes. "These are false assumptions, and may lead to increasing rather than reducing transmission."