Paging Dr. Dog! Another Weapon in the Battle Against COVID-19

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Image courtesy of flickr.com

We often see them in airports, sniffing around for drugs and other questionable substances. Now, it seems, dogs are being trained to use their powerful sniffers (aka snouts) to detect the coronavirus.

How do they do it? First, let’s look at the dog’s olfactory advantage for this work. Humans have a mere six million smell receptors; dogs have as many as 300 million.

Dogs trained in scent detection can discern low levels of what are called volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are found in human blood, breath, urine, and saliva and have been associated with a number of diseases. I hope to write more about these fabulous pups and their detection of other diseases in the near future.

As to our urgent international need, here’s a sampling of some ongoing studies:

In the UK

They’re actually engaged right now in what might be considered the first step toward an airport version of a clinical trial.

There are six dogs, aptly called “The Super Six,” a combo of labrador retrievers and cocker spaniels. The premise is that the dogs will be able to detect the scent of the disease on asymptomatic travelers.

So our future may include appearing at the airport, suitcases ready, passports in hand, and then a cold little nose says, in effect, “No trip for you, buddy! You’re outta here!”

But as a dog worshipper, I can’t think of a happier way to help bring a worldwide pandemic under control.

This effort is backed by the UK government, which has donated funds to a research team from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, in collaboration with Durham University and a charity named Medical Detection Dogs.

And the head of the research team, Professor James Logan, who also heads the department of disease control at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, expresses optimism.

He observed in an interview with cnn.com that this work evolved from earlier research findings that people infected with malaria have a specific body odor—and “dogs can be trained to detect that with very high accuracy.”

The training involves dogs’ sniffing face masks and/or nylon socks worn by both individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19 and those who haven’t.

Why nylon socks? Professor Steve Lindsay, a public health entomologist at the university, acknowledges that it’s a “bit strange,” but their experiences have shown them it’s “a really good way of collecting odors from people and it’s such an easy way to do it.”

In the US (Two Studies) [NOTE: SEE CLARIFICATION BELOW]

Similar research is being done at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine (Penn Vet). Same premise: uncover asymptomatic patients, who are most likely to spread the disease. Also: focus on screening in specifically challenging environments for testing, such as hospitals or businesses.

In the Penn Vet study, which began with eight dogs, the dogs were first given saliva and urine samples from COVID-19 positive patients in a lab-oratory (spelled out and hyphenated to avoid confusion with this post’s stars!). Then they were given negative samples.

The researchers plan to begin testing the trained dogs with live humans in July. They’ll test both sensitivity—the ability to correctly identify those who have the disease (true positive rate)—and specificity—the ability to correctly identify those who don’t have the disease (true negative rate).

Cynthia Otto, DVM, PhD, professor of Working Dog Sciences and Sports Medicine and director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, is leading a multidisciplinary group across the University.

According to Otto:

“The potential impact of these dogs and their capacity to detect COVID-19 could be substantial. This study will harness the dog’s extraordinary ability to support the nation’s COVID-19 surveillance systems, with the goal of reducing community spread.”

Another study, at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York State, bears the names of numerous authors. Involving 198 samples of axillary (armpit) sweat collected from various hospitals, the study was conducted with 18 dogs on three sites. It took the dogs between one and four hours to learn to recognize the odor and then four to ten hours to detect positive samples.

In a subset to demonstrate proof-of-concept, the researchers focused on eight dogs that had previously been trained to detect explosives or colon cancer and had now expanded their doggie resumes with this new specialty.

Their task was to pick out the positive sample from among negative or mock (made up) samples. After 368 trials, here are their percentages: four dogs scored 100%; one achieved 83%; another 84%; another 90%, and the eighth dog 94%.

All those percentages were deemed significantly different from what would occur by chance.

Thus,

“We conclude that there is a very high evidence that the armpits sweat odor of COVID-19+ persons is different, and that dogs can detect a person infected by the SARS-CoV-2 virus.”

Perhaps, theorizes Annie the English major, that also means that armpit sweat can be added to the bodily substances cited earlier that contain volatile organic compounds.

And in Finland

This article’s title appeals to my weakness for bad puns: “The Finnish COVID dogs’ nose knows!”

At the University of Helsinki, researchers from the veterinary and human medicine faculties are working together. The first dogs have successfully differentiated between the urine samples of patients that have COVID-19 and those that don’t.

The researcher and DogRisk group leader, Anna Hielm-Bjorkman, observed:

“We have solid experience in training disease related scent detection dogs. It was fantastic to see how fast the dogs took to the new smell.”

The preliminary tests have demonstrated that the dogs learned fast and worked fast, outperforming the COVID-19 tests based on molecular approaches.

But now comes the big step, prior to moving the scent detection into practice. They’ll begin a randomized double-blinded setting, “introducing them to a larger number of patient samples that are either positive or negative.

And they’ll throw in a curve ball: some of the negative samples will have other respiratory diseases.

They foresee the many beneficial possibilities, which include identifying infected individuals in nursing or retirement homes, and screening health care workers to discern those who are actually ill, rather than just having been exposed, thereby avoiding unnecessary quarantines.

And, to bring us back to where we began, they’re also looking toward screening at airport checkpoints and other border points.

These are, as far as I can tell, all preliminary studies, with the Finnish study moving closest to peer review status, and the Penn Vet study ready to take a big leap forward in just a few weeks.

But with the dogged determination of researchers, trainers, and humans’ best friends, it certainly looks as though we may soon see a warm and fuzzy side of the successful efforts to contain this terrible pandemic.

Though most of these tests will be processed in lab-oratories, if you were in an airport and given the choice, which would you prefer: a large swab inserted into your nostril, or a tail-wagging canine circling around you once or twice (no petting allowed!)?

Warmest thanks and profound love to my daughter the professional dog trainer, par excellence, who suggested the idea and provided me with the articles that formed the basis of this post.

Annie

CLARIFICATION: The study I attributed above to the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in the US was based on an abstract bearing its logo. I subsequently learned that the study is, in fact, being conducted in Paris, at the Alfort School of Veterinary Medicine; Ajaccio, France, at the South Corsica Fire and Emergency Dept, and Beirout (sic), Lebanon, at the French-Lebanese University Saint Joseph.

Continue reading “Paging Dr. Dog! Another Weapon in the Battle Against COVID-19”

Frogs Do It, Bees Do It–Even Educated “We’s” Do It…

 

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Honeybee image courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org

I altered the first line of an old song (“Let’s Fall in Love”) to shamelessly draw you in to a discussion of an important topic.

As an intro, here’s a little Haiku for These Times

Social distancing—
Ants isolate selves when ill
Healthy queen makes room.

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Ant image courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org

Why are ants so much smarter than a growing number of humans? I’m speaking now of the American variety (of humans, not ants), but surely there are others.

There is near unanimity in the scientific community that social distancing is essential if we are ever to gain control over the coronavirus.

Most people in the US are pretty cranky about the isolation and feel/recognize the terrible economic burden it imposes. We want out as soon as possible, but we understand that social distancing is for our safety and that of others.

And it doesn’t take a college degree to understand—just common sense, a willingness to listen to reason, and a bit of compassion.

Yet the President has swung both ways on the issue, now firmly enunciating what he regards as essential: reopening the economy—come what may.

And he’s encouraging defiance of the standards his administration developed–even as the coronavirus has sneaked its way past the Secret Service and into the White House.

He’s a very confused person who declared himself a success when deaths passed 64,000 and told us we can expect twice that many. As I write, they’re about to pass 78,000.

Is there a magic number that will maybe move him to consider the role he might play in reducing this catastrophe?

Meanwhile the Senate Republicans see no need to beef up the successful food stamp program when millions more need it—for fear that people will become accustomed to such “handouts.”

Bulletin just in from Politico: Republicans all in to focus on touting Trump’s success in handling pandemic.

But let’s get back to the animals. Unlike the heavily armed Michigan “protesters” whining that their liberties are being infringed upon, animals know when it’s not safe to go get a haircut.

I’ll state at the outset that I’m not endorsing all these animal behaviors—merely pointing out their existence and the reasons for them.

Take mandrill monkeys, for example. They spend a lot of time grooming each other, keeping one another’s fur clean and free of parasites.

But if one member of their group shows signs of a contagious disease, that poor soul is involuntarily isolated. They do, however, make exceptions for ailing family members.

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Mandrill monkey image courtesy of pxfuel.com

Chimpanzees take matters even further, aggressively ousting an ailing member. Jane Goodall reported observing a chimp with polio in Tanzania in 1966. At one point, the chimp, partially paralyzed, reached out to greet his fellows, but they moved away from him.

Goodall did note that eventually, chimps would allow some of their stricken fellows to return.

Honeybees do more than move away. Older bees, capable of smelling serious bacterial diseases like American foulbrood, which destroys the larvae, will throw the bees out of the hive.

As this seemingly heartless act (forgive me; I tend to anthropomorphize) actually protects the colony as a whole, leading to healthier bees, beekeepers and researchers have been selectively breeding for this behavior for many years.

American Bullfrog tadpoles also react to chemical signals to prevent them from catching a lethal yeast infection, according to Joe Kiesecker, a research scientist.

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American Bullfrog tadpole image courtesy of flickr.com

In the late 1990s, models of the spread of disease were based on the prediction that animals got sick by random contact with infected beings.

“But it’s clear animals are smarter,” Kiesecker said. Healthy tadpoles he studied avoided those that were sick.

I think you get the picture. The concept of social distancing, practiced in varying ways, isn’t some wild-eyed idea from scientists that Trump would prefer not to listen to. It is an evolutionary survival mechanism.

According to Dana Hawley, professor of biological sciences at Virginia Tech:

“Anytime we see a behavior that has evolved again and again in lots of different animals, that tells us that this has to be a very beneficial behavior.”

Hawley and Julia Buck, an assistant professor of biology at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, have said:

“The evidence from nature is clear: Social distancing is an effective tool for reducing disease spread. It is also a tool that can be implemented more rapidly and more universally than almost any other. Unlike vaccination and medication, behavioral changes don’t require development and testing.”

We humans presumably have the intelligence and compassion to use this concept effectively and wisely. But we dare not pretend it isn’t necessary for our survival.

Yet that seems to be what some “magical thinkers” are doing.

The Texas Lieutenant Governor has said “there are more important things than living.” (I wish he’d been asked to name one.) Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie concluded that “there are going to be deaths no matter what,” so we should forge ahead in opening the economy.

The President appears to have simply picked up his golf ball and gone home: telling us what a great job he’s doing while acknowledging the death tolls will be far higher than anticipated.

Without adequate testing—which both the President and Vice President get every day, by the way—as well as tracing, we’ll never know how many of us this pandemic has truly sickened and killed. And we won’t be able to contain it better than we’re doing.

A powerful New York Times editorial by Charlie Wurzel expressed concern that as the death toll rises, we will become inured to it—just as we have to the unfathomable toll from gun violence.

Wurzel quotes Dr. Megan Ranney, an emergency physician and professor at Brown University devoted to gun violence prevention, who sees similarities between individuals protesting gun control and those protesting pandemic lockdowns.

You will recall that the President encouraged the armed people who terrorized those in the Michigan State House.

According to Ranney:

“This group has moved the reopening debate from a conversation about health and science to a conversation about liberty…It’s no longer about weighing risks and benefits and instead it’s this politicized narrative…

“Most gun owners are smart and responsible and safety-conscious—just like most Americans want to do what’s right for public health. But the small minority dominates the conversation.”

Wurzel writes:

“As in the gun control debate, public opinion, public health and the public good seem poised to lose out to a select set of personal freedoms…where any suggestion of collective duty and responsibility for others become the chains of tyranny.”

The animals who practice social distancing are following their instincts. But we are seeing a deliberate rejection of social distancing now by the President, Senate Republicans, and a small but noisy group of malcontents.

They base their objections on a distorted view of economics and individual liberties that not only presents a false dichotomy between the economy and human life, but also cruelly casts our most vulnerable people as the sacrificial “warriors” in this dreadfully unnecessary war.

As we have seen, people of color are among the most heavily affected. In addition to the disproportionate deaths and poverty, they are even being subjected to heavier policing in the areas of social distancing and wearing masks.

(Is there reason to wonder why African American men may be reluctant to don masks when the most recent senseless killing of an unarmed, innocent young man out jogging is so painfully fresh?)

The term Social Darwinism comes to mind. Briefly, this long discredited theory reshaped Darwin’s theory of evolution to create a negative societal ideology. To Social Darwinists:

“Survival of the fittest”—the idea that certain people become powerful in society because they are innately better. Social Darwinism has been used to justify imperialism, racism, eugenics and social inequality at various times over the past century and a half.”

Is this where we are in America now?

Annie

Continue reading “Frogs Do It, Bees Do It–Even Educated “We’s” Do It…”