A group of sniffing canines who help Vancouver healthcare workers with infection detection can now track COVID-19.
For more than five years, Vancouver Coastal Health’s canine scent detection team has helped track Clostridioides difficile in healthcare settings across the country.
Allison Muniak, executive director of quality and patient safety, said in a statement Thursday (Aug. 12) that it was a “natural evolution” to add the infectious respiratory disease to the dog’s scent detection roster.
“We are uniquely positioned to do this work with a successful C. difficile detection program led by a multi-disciplinary team of medical professionals, dog handlers and infection prevention practitioners,” Muniak said.
Even with an experienced team, training dogs to detect a relatively new virus is no small feat. The Canines for Care team starting from scratch just six months ago.
Initially, they identified “green” dogs for training and welcomed two Labrador retrievers, Micro and Yoki, and one English springer spaniel, Finn, to the pack.
“Every dog can sniff but not every dog can work,” said Teresa Zurberg, Canine Scent Detection Specialist and nationally-recognized canine handler.
“We worked with scent detection teams around the world to find dogs that have the right combination of genetics and also the potential to do this work.”
To train the dogs, the team collected COVID-19 saliva, breath and sweat samples from consenting patients, before preparing them in a way that removed any risk of transmission.
Micro and Finn were found to have 100 per cent sensitivity and 93 per cent specificity in identifying COVID-19 in a laboratory setting. Yoki recently passed the rigorous validation process with similar results.
With more than 300 million olfactory receptors, dogs are known to be able to detect unseen threats to human health, including bacterial and viral infections and cancer and that their accuracy can be comparable to certain laboratory diagnostic tests.
The new COVID-19 detection program is being partially funded by Health Canada as part of the federal restart program.
Looking ahead, Vancouver Coastal Health said it’s looking to develop a formalized training program with the possibility that canine scent detection can be used to screen for COVID-19 in airports, cruise ships and public events.
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