Commentary: Dogs are a low-tech and efficient option to screen for COVID-19

In this type of low prevalence environment, you want dogs to be able to track passengers with a high “negative predictive value”. In other words, you want dogs to be able to identify people who don’t carry the virus to tell them apart from those who might. Then you will perform confirmatory PCR tests on this last group.

In a setting where the prevalence of COVID-19 is around 1%, such as an airport, researchers estimated the “negative predictive value” for testing dogs for COVID to be 99.9%. That is, the dogs would be expected to correctly exclude 99.9% of passengers as having COVID-19. This is another fantastic result.

ACCURATE, INSTANT RESULTS ARE VALUABLE

In a world where we rely on expensive technological solutions, there is something reassuring about finding a low-tech option to screen for COVID-19.

Importantly, the study points out that dogs train quickly for this task and are ideal for scouting in high-throughput environments, such as airports, given their accuracy and the fact that they provide instant results.

While nothing should surprise us about our closest friend, another incredible finding from this study was the suggestion that dogs could have distinguished between variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the COVID-19.

Although other possible explanations cannot be ruled out, the dogs’ performance seemed to drop with the emergence of the Alpha variant. This was attributed to the dogs being able to identify a difference between this variant and the wild-type virus they were originally trained on.

These studies confirm that nothing could be further from the truth when we say that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

Hassan Vally is an associate professor of epidemiology at Deakin University. This comment first appeared in The Conversation.

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