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  • Jill Rennie

Pokaa, The Covid-19 Detective.

"Proven to be 48 hours quicker and less intrusive than a PCR test, Pokaa, a two-year-old golden retriever is working at a French care home to detect any positive Covid-19 cases in residents."

"Pokaa at work - credit: Youtube"

Pokaa took up his post at La Roselière care home in France’s Alsace region at the end of July and has managed to attain a 100 per cent success rate detecting Covid-19 in symptomatic residents and 94 per cent in asymptomatic cases.

Instead of residents having to endure swabs being taken from the back of the throat and in the nose for a PCR test, a cotton pad is placed under the armpit for five minutes, before being put in a sterile container. Pokaa then sniffs the cloth through a metal box. If he detects the Covid-19 protein spike, Pokka stops, sits down and gives a blow of the muzzle to inform his trainer.

Pokaa’s trainer, Christelle Schreiber from charity Handi’chiens said: “The difference is quite stark. If Pokaa detects a positive swab, he sits in front of the cone, he really holds his position, he can be very insistent on his marking.

“If he detects a negative swab, he'll smell it, or very quickly ignore it, and come back to me and say there's nothing there.”

Residents with dementia don't understand PCR tests, 'they feel attacked'

Once the dog detects the disease, a PCR test is administered to confirm the diagnosis and the resident can be isolated to protect other residents at the home.

Doctor Pierre Kohser, who works at La Roselière care home said: “The [residents] where PCR tests are carried out often feel attacked. We have a lot of people with dementia who don’t understand and even when we explain it to them, they struggle when we put a cotton swap in their nose and sometimes it takes two or three people to carry out the test.”

Before the pandemic started in March 2020, the dogs were trained by Handi’chiens to provide assistance and company to people with disabilities, now the charity has decided to train some of their dogs to detect Covid-19.

In addition to Pokaa, two other dogs from the Handi'chiens have been trained to smell the coronavirus and will be deployed in Saint-Brieuc, and Alençon soon.

Alain LeGrand director of Handi’chiens said: “Instead of doing 115 PCR tests, you do 115 tests with the dog. if one resident is positive, you only need to do one PCR test and save doing a further 114 tests which cost around 50 euros each.”

A recent study in the UK led by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) collaboratively with the charity Medical Detection Dogs and Durham University and part-funded by the Department of Health & Social Care has also found sniffer dogs can be useful tools in controlling the spread of Covid-19.

The dogs trained by a team at Medical Detection Dogs were used to identify Covid-19 body odour samples consisting of 3,758 samples of masks, socks and t-shirts donated by the public and NHS staff. The team at LSHTM collected and processed and chose 325 positive and 675 negative samples for testing.

The results showed Covid-19 infection has a distinct smell, which specially trained dogs can rapidly, non-invasively detect with up to 94.3 per cent sensitivity and up to 92 per cent specificity.

Dr Claire Guest, chief scientific officer at Medical Detection Dogs, said: “These fantastic results are further evidence that dogs are one of the most reliable biosensors for detecting the odour of human disease. Our robust study shows the huge potential for dogs to help in the fight against Covid-19.

“Knowing we can harness the amazing power of a dog’s nose to detect Covid-19 quickly and non-invasively gives us hope for a return to a more normal way of life, so we can again socialise with family and friends.”

The dogs were trained over several weeks by introducing them to the odour samples from individuals that had tested positive for Covid-19, as well as control samples from people who had tested negative. Samples were presented to the dogs on a stand system and were rewarded for correctly indicating a positive sample, or for correctly ignoring a negative sample.

The dogs were able to detect odour from individuals who were asymptomatic, as well as those with two different strains. With the use of the Bio Detection dogs plus a confirmatory PCR test, the dogs are estimated to detect more than twice as many cases and prevent more onward transmission than isolating symptomatic individuals only.

Leading the project, Professor James Logan, head of the Department of Disease Control at LSHTM, said: “The results of this study far exceeded my expectations. While the mass rollout of vaccines in the UK is a great success, it will take time to achieve the coverage levels needed for our lives to return to near normal. With the threat of new variants entering the country, the need for testing means we face potential continued disruption for some time to come.

“That’s where these amazing dogs could play a role. Further research is needed to see if the dogs can replicate these results in a real-world setting, but these findings are hugely encouraging. This really could help us get back to doing the things we love sooner, safely and with less disruption.”


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