One of the great challenges of COVID-19 has been our inability to detect its presence prior to the appearance of symptoms. Unfortunately, it appears we all have the ability to carry and spread SARS-CoV-2 before symptoms appear. Even the "fully vaccinated" can apparently carry and spread the virus, according to the CDC. We thus live in an apprehensive and pensive environment with much hand-washing, distancing, and more. But, there is a low-tech tool being deployed to aid in our defense. You see, the phrase "COVID stinks" is both cathartic and yet also accurate.
In 2015, reports began to surface regarding a program at Florida International University that trained dogs to detect a fungus that impacted avocado trees. As reported by the Community News, a "deadly fungus (was) spread by" an invasive species of beetles. Researchers noted that by the time a particular tree showed symptoms, "the fungus has likely spread to nearby trees." The critical challenge was diagnosis prior to symptoms.
The Florida University contrived a two-prong process to attack the issue, combining high and low tech. The high tech involved drones with thermal cameras. These images sought to identify trees that were exhibiting stress. While temperature signature helped in that regard, the thermal did not identify the cause of the stress. Identifying the cause of the stress then fell to dogs and their sense of smell.
It turns out that dogs "have up to 50 times more olfactory receptors than humans and can be hundreds to thousands of times more sensitive to detecting odors." Some might wonder at that. I have often caught a dog in the yard rolling in something that smells really bad, and the smell seems to offend me far more readily. But, I digress. The fact is that these avocado-fungus sniffers "detected the pathogen much earlier than any other method available." Fungus has a smell.
In December 2021, the FIU News noted that the same concept could be engaged to detect the presence of COVID. While the effect may be identical, it seems more likely that the dogs can detect the virus, SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID. That may be mere semantics, but I have striven to be clear on the cause and effect.
Dogs have a history of deployment in various olfactory challenges. The News notes their proven value in "locating people and human remains, drugs, currency, accelerants, explosives, invasive species, fungi." But, this latest potential is truly intriguing. Similar to the situation with avocado fungus, we are dealing with a virus that may be present in us seemingly at any time, often undetected. We may be distressed without actually knowing it, and the actual symptoms may appear days after we are infected, days after we have been shedding the virus on our surroundings and contacts.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has noted that dogs' acute senses are incredible. In February 2021, it noted "numerous studies have shown that trained dogs can detect many kinds of disease — including lung, breast, ovarian, bladder, and prostate cancers." It asserts that the challenge in this regard is the volume of dogs and the investment in training. It has therefore been working to develop and deploy a technological device of similar accuracy and sensitivity. The dream is "an automated odor-detection system small enough to be incorporated into a cellphone." Thus, technology may lead to under-employment even in the canine world.
The FIU researchers explain that “a basic principle of forensic science is ‘every contact leaves a trace.'” Because of the acute sense of smell, dogs can actually smell the virus, detect its presence in a room, or on a surface. Testing their theories, the FIU team deployed dogs at "the South Beach Wine and Food Festival," and later at the "employee entrance at Miami International Airport." The dogs demonstrated an impressive "real-world" "average accuracy rate of 97.5 percent." The research and findings are now "in published, peer-reviewed, double-blind trials."
One might think that the natural next step would be deployment of such dogs around Miami. However, the existence of these dogs and their ability came to my attention through WJAR in Norton, Massachusetts. The story reports that "the Bristol County Sheriff's Office is the first law enforcement agency in the country to utilize trained canines" for COVID-19 detection.
Reportedly, their two COVID dogs, “Huntah” and “Duke,” are capable of "sweep(ing) an area such as a cafeteria, library or hallway, and alert the presence of the odor that is left on surfaces by a person infected with COVID-19." When the dog detects the scent, it signals by sitting. The manner in which drug-sniffing dogs "signal" their "alert" has been fodder for many a comedian. I have heard various criminal defense lawyers speak regarding their skepticism of such "signaling" and handler interpretations that are necessary in the context of probable cause and searches.
Be that as it may, building upon the FIU program and research, this law enforcement unit has begun searching for the novel coronavirus on surfaces in Massachusetts. They claim that these particular dogs similarly demonstrated a "97% accuracy" during their certification in Florida. They claim that is "more accurate than a PCR test.” And, there is no downside to a false positive in this setting since the detection is on surfaces, from which the virus might be spread to some person. Upon detection, the surface can then be simply disinfected and the spread slowed or even stopped.
The Massachusetts story describes how the Sheriff offers the services of Huntah and Duke to the local school systems. They patrol and sniff schools in search of surfaces that need disinfection and thus slow the spread of the virus. Their presence has apparently been welcomed by multiple schools.
Whether detected by canine of eventually by some super-smeller cell phone, the implications of such detection are clear. Although the immediate interest is in this virus, the long-term implications for detection, diagnosis, and treatment of this and other maladies is intriguing. The impacts on both the employment setting and the medical delivery system are intriguing, both within and without the context of workers' compensation.
While time may bring some such super-smeller cell phone, the conclusion today is that man's best friend may be our best tool for slowing the spread of this virus, and perhaps a great many others.
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