Right now getting a test for COVID-19 means having blood drawn or a swab inserted into your nose. But if the U.S. Army has its way, a dog may be able to let you know you’ve got the virus just by sniffing you.
Recent research being conducted by the Army’s Combat Capabilities Development Command Chemical Biological Center in Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland., in conjunction with the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine Working Dog Center, is exploring training dogs to detect the presence of COVID-19.
In the past, the University of Pennsylvania has had success in training dogs to identify cancer and diabetes in humans. Detecting the presence of COVID-19 means teaching the dogs to recognize proteins created by the human immune system when it responds to a COVID-19 infection.
According to University of Pennsylvania researcher Michele Maughan, the goal is to train dogs to detect the disease before a person starts showing symptoms, such as fever, coughing and shortness of breath.
“In the case of detecting COVID-19, the dogs never actually have any exposure to the live virus,” Michele says in a statement. “Rather, they are trained to detect the biomarkers associated with COVID-19 disease in humans.”
To perform such highly specialized training, the Army went to Patrick Nolan, a working dog trainer in Maryland who had previously provided military working dogs to the Army’s Special Forces. For this training, Nolan provided eight Labrador Retrievers between the ages of 1½ to 2½ years and one 6-year-old Belgian Malinois.
Nolan started training the dogs in May using a Training Aid Delivery Device (TADD), a specialized containment vessel that has a gas-permeable membrane. The TADD allows dogs to train on potentially hazardous material—human saliva and urine from COVID-19 infected patients—by letting the odor of the training aid out, but not the actual training aid.
The TADD was attached to a specialized training wheel, and the dogs were taught over six to nine weeks not only to detect the scent of COVID-19 human biomarkers, but to keep searching for hours at a time.
“Not every dog can stick with the length and degree of intensity of the training to get all the way to being able to detect in the part per trillion range,” said University of Pennsylvania researcher Jenna Gadberry. “And not every dog has the drive to stay with the game for hours at a time, which is essential if the dogs are to provide COVID-19 screening at the entrances to crowded public places such as at airports, sports stadiums or at border control checkpoints.”
Right now, the project is in a “proof-of-concept” phase, just to determine that dogs can indeed be trained to detect COVID-19. Ultimately, the Department of Defense envisions using COVID-19 detection dogs to provide an added layer to the nation’s biosecurity posture.
Featured Image: svetikd/Getty Images