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The military is investigating whether dogs can detect signs of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) thanks to a new research agreement with the University of Pennsylvania.
Researchers at the Combat Capabilities Research and Development (CCDC) Chemical Biological Center have entered into a research and development cooperation agreement with the Working Dog Center of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine (Penn Vet), who has trained dogs to detect cancer and diabetes in the past, according to a service announcement.
The project, first designed in March and officially rolled out in mid-May, aims to train dogs to detect biomarkers of COVID-19, proteins produced by the human immune system in response to the presence of the virus. .
The goal “is to train dogs to detect the disease state before a person begins to show signs of illness such as fever, cough and shortness of breath,” researcher Michele Maughan said in a statement from the ‘army.
To do this, researchers at Penn Vet use what is known as a Training Aid Delivery Device (TADD), a laboratory device first developed by the Chemical Biological Center in 2013 for handling substances. which, thanks to a special membrane, allows dogs to train with substances. like drugs and explosives without direct contact.
“We knew the TADD would be perfect for holding saliva or urine samples from COVID-19 patients because we knew that this odor profile would be quite nuanced and would force dogs to grab very low samples. [volatile organic compound] “Maughan said.” It is important that the containment system, the TADD, does not compete with the target odor. “
According to the military, the Chemical Biological Center and Penn Vet began training as recently as May 26 with the help of Patrick Nolan, owner of a Maryland-based working dog business who has spent over d ‘a decade of training military working dogs for army special forces. staff.
“Pat provided ten working dogs and, using human saliva and urine samples provided by the University of Pennsylvania, immediately made the dogs work with the TADDs,” Maughan said. “Training dogs to do this kind of work, detecting a substance down to parts per trillion levels is an art, and I couldn’t think of anyone better than him to do it.
Using TADDS and a specialized training wheel, Nolan works to train dogs not only to detect a certain scent, but “to stay engaged in the hunt for hours at a time,” as the military put it.
Here’s how the training system works, according to the military:
The training wheel is at the heart of this training process. It has multiple arms, each has a TADD attached to its end. Some contain saliva or urine from a patient who is symptomatic of COVID-19, some contain a sample from an asymptomatic person, and some are from a person who does not have the virus. But the choices don’t end there. Some contain an inert substance as a control, some have an element of distraction inside, such as an open magic marker or food or a tennis ball, and some are empty.
The dog is, in effect, paid to become more and more selective, focusing its attention solely on the smell of the COVID-19 immune response. For these Labrador Retrievers, the payout is a favorite treat or toy. As training progresses, Nolan stacks the wheels, creating even more sources of stimulation for dogs and requiring them to become more and more selective.
Each dog takes six to nine weeks to train, according to the military, and the Chemical Biological Center and Penn Vet are working to establish a proof of concept for a dog-based detection system. But if the team is successful in effectively training and operationalizing working dogs, they could plausibly complement existing detection methods in crowded public places like airports or sports stadiums – not just now, but in the world. to come up.
“It is even more serious than the pandemic we are currently facing,” Patricia Buckley, chief of the biochemistry section, said in a statement. “We will face future pandemics caused by other viruses and having a capacity like this will keep the country ready for whatever comes next.
Related: The Air Force is struggling to find homes for retired military working dogs. Here’s how you can help