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Sniffing out the virus: Dogs in France can be retrained in weeks to detect COVID-19

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By Katy Dartford
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Sniffer dogs at the Helsinki airport in Vantaa, Finland
Sniffer dogs at the Helsinki airport in Vantaa, Finland   -   Copyright  Antti Aimo-Koivisto/Lehtikuva
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Scientists in France are exploring an idea already being used in Finland; using dogs to sniff out COVID-19. They say dogs could be brought into action within weeks if the government gives the go-ahead.

During the first wave of the pandemic, a veterinary school in Val-de-Marne, near Paris, began training police and search and rescue dogs to detect people with the virus.

Within two weeks the animals had achieved a 94 percent accuracy rate in responding to sweat samples which produce a different odor in people carrying the infection.

The dogs do not smell the virus directly but sniff a chemical produced when the virus infects cells and is released by the body.

They found that in theory any breed could be trained as a detection dog in between two to 10 weeks.

"Right now the dogs are more reliable than the PCR tests,' said the man behind the idea Dominique Grandjean, who's the head of the clinical sciences at the Alfort National School of Veterinary Medicine.

"We consider the dogs to be fully trained when they have a 95% success rate. Right now, we are at 93 to 94%, so we are very hopeful."

The sniffer dogs were tested out on the French island of Corsica this summer, and hundreds of COVID-19 infected people were detected.

The veterinary school say the next step is for them to be deployed within high school and universities, to avoid clusters, while allowing pupils to stay in school.

"The major obstacle we face is the lack of funding. Unlike many other countries, like Saudi Arabia, Finland, Lebanon, Columbia, etc, we do not get help from our government."

ANTTI AIMO-KOIVISTO/Lehtikuva
Coronavirus sniffer dog at the Helsinki airport in Vantaa, FinlandANTTI AIMO-KOIVISTO/Lehtikuva

"That's the major issue we have to deal with. We do know how to train pretty much any breed of dogs to detect pretty much anything. But right now, we only have 5 dogs, when we could have so many more and be efficient on the ground."

"The next big step is to convince the Minister of Health that we are a great asset in the prevention and control of the spread of the virus and that we are worthy of public funding."

The school is now are planning on collaborating on this with the charity 'Handichiens' (Handi-dogs), which trains dogs for the blind and visual impaired.