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Interview with animal researcher: "Dogs could help in the pandemic"

2020-09-27T18:05:38.619Z

Dogs' sense of smell is being used in the pandemic at airports in Dubai and Helsinki. Animal researcher Holger Volk explains how to teach animals to recognize viruses. And where they reach their limits.



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Beagle bitch "Djak" recognizes samples from corona-positive people

Photo: localpic / imago images

SPIEGEL

: Mr. Volk, corona detection dogs have recently been used at the airports in Helsinki and Dubai.

What are the animals doing there?  

Volk

: We know from studies that dogs are able to differentiate samples from Covid-infected and non-infected.

In Finland animals are used that have been trained to do so.

However, it is not the case that the dogs run through the crowd and hit as soon as they sniff out an infected person.

Dogs are not allowed to be used directly on humans, this is against the Geneva Convention.

SPIEGEL

: How do the animals work then?

People

: As far as I know, travelers can voluntarily submit a sweat sample, which is obtained with a cloth that is rubbed over the skin.

The dogs then smell the cloth in a separate room and react to a positive test.

SPIEGEL

: Dogs can learn to recognize drugs and explosives.

But how do you train them for viruses?

Volk

: I published a study in the specialist magazine "BMC Infectious Diseases" for which we used a special machine.

The animals stick their noses into several openings in the device - there are different scent samples there.

One of them comes from the sputum, called sputum, of a person infected with Covid.

If the animal sniffed at it, it was rewarded with food after a few seconds.

This motivates the dog to remember this olfactory pattern and to jump on it later.

This conditioning is a game for the animals.

In such studies, one must be careful not to inadvertently give the animal information about the location of the corona samples through unconscious signals.

Dogs are very sensitive there.

So we didn't know where the sample was either.

SPIEGEL

: How long does a dog need to learn these olfactory patterns?

People

: After seven to ten days of training, the animals were able to correctly detect 94 percent Corona among more than 1000 samples.

But the Bundeswehr dogs we worked with had been trained for smells beforehand.

Inexperienced animals would probably take longer.

SPIEGEL

: Dogs cannot sniff out the virus itself.

Then what are they jumping at?

Volk

: In a way, that's the million dollar question.

We simply don't know yet, because unlike bacteria, viruses don't emit any scents.

Presumably the virus changes the metabolism in the human host cells.

This has an impact on the so-called VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds), volatile organic compounds.

These fragrances can be found in body fluids such as sweat, urine or saliva.

SPIEGEL

: What uncertainties are there among the corona sniffer dogs?

Volk

: It is unclear whether the dogs can distinguish between symptomatic and asymptomatic courses.

We do not know how long such a sweat test will allow the dogs to come to the right conclusions and whether it will eventually lead to a false positive result.

And how and whether the various phases of the disease affect the fragrances is also unknown.

So far there are only a few studies on this, some of which are only provisionally published.

But I assume that some data are available in Finland so that the animals can be used there.

SPIEGEL

: According to the data from the Finns, the dogs get by with much smaller amounts of sample than are needed for PCR tests.

Volk

: In our study, a hundred microliters per cotton cloth was enough for the animals to recognize the scent.

We humans are very visual and we cannot imagine what dogs can smell.

They basically map their environment through scents.

Humans can recognize up to 10,000 smells.

Dogs differ over a million.

But there is also uncertainty in operations like the one in Helsinki.

SPIEGEL

: To what extent?

People

: Dogs can sniff out very small amounts of molecules.

But there must be no contamination, that could irritate the animals.

So you have to work very cleanly and hand each sample in a new container.

"A Bloodhound has up to 250 million cells in the olfactory lining. Humans only have about five million."

SPIEGEL

: Can my dog ​​learn to sniff out a corona infection at home?

Volk

: In principle, yes.

But certain races do better.

Especially long-nosed ones such as Labradors, Retrievers or Cocker Spaniels.

A Bloodhound has up to 250 million cells in the olfactory lining.

Man only about five million.

For our study, we trained beagles.

SPIEGEL

: Did you also investigate whether the animals can infect themselves with the virus?

Volk:

For safety reasons, we worked with inactivated samples, after all, everyone in the study environment should stay healthy.

If active samples are held in front of the dog's nose for sniffing, necessary safety measures should be taken.

According to the US Department of Health, there is said to have been evidence of corona antibodies in dogs, but these are rather isolated cases and more detailed information has not yet been researched.

However, there is no need to panic for dog owners, as it is not yet suspected that humans can become infected with their dog.

SPIEGEL

: What long-term potential do you see for sniffer dogs in the corona pandemic?

Volk

: Although we have a high level of development and a well-functioning health system in Germany, we reached our limits in the Corona crisis because a lot of people had to be tested.

Dogs could help in the pandemic.

We could use them at airports, in football stadiums or at events, but only in addition.

If the animals jump on an odor test, we still need a PCR test, which is safer.

Dogs will of course not be able to replace laboratories.

SPIEGEL

: But you can react faster than tests.

Volk

: Exactly.

The advantage is that they deliver a result within seconds.

The animals can also help in developing countries where resources are limited.

We already had corresponding inquiries.

Spiegel:

When will dogs sniff for Corona at German airports?

Volk:

So far we have not had any requests to follow the Finnish example.

There, the political will for such pilot projects is perhaps greater than in Germany.

And

we are still at the beginning with our research on corona.

The hardest part was getting samples from asymptomatic Covid patients.

So if you want to support us, please contact us and submit a sample.

There are still many unanswered questions and a lot to research.

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Source: spiegel

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