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COVID-detecting K-9s: Organization trains dogs to identify who has the virus

Local K-9 handlers discovered dogs can tell if a person is infected with COVID-19 based on their smell - which could have public health impacts.

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — Could dogs help stop the spread of COVID-19?

A local K-9 organization has trained dogs to smell and detect COVID-19 positive samples - a breakthrough that could be used for screenings before large events and gatherings. 

"I met it with a lot of skepticism, and the dogs proved me wrong," said James Overton, a dog handler and business development director for American K-9 Interdiction.

Not far removed from dogs who detect drugs or explosives, Dexter, Miles and Blade are the first class of COVID-detection dogs for AK9I, an Isle of Wight K-9 training organization.

Overton said this is new territory, using dogs for infectious disease control.

After months of training, they discovered someone who has the virus has a different smell.

"We didn’t actually train the dogs to the virus itself; we trained the dogs to recognize the change in the body odor from someone who’s infected versus not infected," he said.

So, how does it work?

You would use a piece of gauze to swab for saliva in their mouth for about 10 to 15 seconds, before placing that sample in a tube.

The dogs then make their run and alert to their handler, often by stopping and sitting, detecting COVID-19 positive samples among a group of negative ones.

"With astonishing accuracy rate," Overton said. "Between 90 to 94% accurate."

For months, Overton and AK9I have worked with Bon Secours and Sentara Healthcare to get COVID-19 positive and negative samples for the dogs to train. 

Jan Phillips, VP of Nursing at Bon Secours Mary Immaculate Hospital, said it’s a program that nearly every patient and all staff members have supported.

"This is something good that can come out of something that has been truly stressful," Phillips said.

To test the findings, AK9I conducted a blind peer review trial. The dog handlers didn’t know which sample was positive, and a group of medical professionals, vets and officers judged the results.

"The peer-review process where there was only one person who knew which was positive really solidified for me the talent that these dogs have," Phillips said. "None of them missed that day, it was 100%."

Overton said the K-9 screening would be ideal at big events – checks at concerts, stadiums, schools, amusement parks or cruise ship boarding.

It would be a third option, in addition to proof of vaccination or negative test results, to keep the community safe and the economy open, he said.

"The speed that the dogs are able to do this, it allows us to be able to do large venues that have a high concentration of people in close proximity to each other rather quickly," Overton said. "They can feel comfortable once they’re inside knowing that everybody in here has been screened for COVID-19."

The dogs are able to smell if someone is COVID-positive but asymptomatic, screening up to 30 people in less than a minute.

“It’s another way to help ease the burden on the healthcare system," Overton said.

The venues would then make the decision on what happens if someone’s sample is flagged as positive by a dog.

Dexter, Miles and Blade are ready for work now, but they’ll soon be joined by a new class of dogs.

AK9I just added five more dogs to its COVID-19 detection program. Dogs normally assigned to marine or police programs are now focused on finding the smell of the virus.

"And they’re just phenomenal, we really don’t deserve these dogs, they’re so incredible."

Overton said the dogs have detected different variants of COVID-19 without issue, signaling their ability could have lasting public health impacts, even as the virus mutates.

AK9I leaders said they're now seeing if any organizations would like to work with them for COVID-19 screenings at upcoming events.

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