PCR tests vs Covid-19 sniffer dogs

The newly formed Pet Alliance Europe recently showed how trained dogs are being used to detect Covid-19 in airports, hospitals and culture events, demonstrating the potential benefits of training pets as partners in society. Marta Pacheco reports.
A sniffer dog detecting Covid at Dubai Airport, United Arab Emirates | Source: Project Nosäis

By Marta Pacheco

Marta Pacheco is a Communications Consultant, Freelancer, Journalist & Independent Researcher.

06 Oct 2021

Sniffer dogs trained to detect Covid-19 could play a crucial role in helping us manage the pandemic, especially if recognised as a vital part of the One Health approach. This was the key message from the event – ‘Can pets power health in Europe?’ Organised by AnimalhealthEurope representing the animal health industry and FEDIAF, representing the European pet food industry, the event marked the launch of the newly-created Pet Alliance Europe, a partnership dedicated to raising awareness of the countless benefits pets bring to households and society. The most conspicuous and timely being the use of sniffer dogs to reduce costs and increase access to Covid-19 testing. “There’s a multitude of peer-reviewed studies illustrating the myriad beneficial effects of pet ownership to people,” said AnimalhealthEurope’s President Hans-Guenther Dittrich.


Covid-19 sniffer dogs

Under Project Nosäis, conducted by the Maisons-Alfort National Veterinary School in partnership with the Pasteur Institute, trained dogs have been deployed across the world in airports, customs facilities, hospitals and culture venues to detect the presence of Covid-19 in humans. The Project began in March 2020 and has rapidly expanded to more than 50 countries each looking at the practical application of sniffer dogs. In short, trained dogs have the ability to detect Covid-19 in humans, based on sweat samples, using their incredible sense of smell. Some countries are working with saliva or urine samples, others with masks.

“The concept is to optimise the canine olfactory capacities to focus on the detection of SARS-CoV-2 portage in humans to provide a new mass pre-testing system,” explained the head of the project, Professor Dominique Grandjean, during the event, noting that they don’t intend to replace PCR tests but to present a cheaper and more efficient alternative to mass testing.

A sniffer dog detecting Covid at Santiago Airport, Chile | Source: Project Nosäis

Dogs are naturally gifted with a non-human organ called the Jacobson’s organ, Grandjean explained, which serves as a secondary olfactory system designed specifically for chemical communication. In practice, with the sweat sample method, sweat swabs from the armpit are placed in glass containers connected to a cone which enhances the dogs’ ability to detect the presence of Covid-19. From the over 800 dogs that are now working and able to find Covid-19, none of them has tested positive or was sick, Grandjean guaranteed.

The Project Nosäis has been validated by the World Health Organization (WHO), which has since created a dedicated working group and mobilised national teams to support further training and establish international guidelines for training the dogs. “We have right now 16 publications reporting the results and it’s totally equivalent with PCR tests and maybe better than PCR,” said Grandjean, describing a sensitivity of 95% and a specificity of between 92% and 94%. An international survey conducted in the context of the Project Nosäis revealed that the public has broadly accepted this practice, with the vast majority choosing dogs to PCRs upon arrival at the airport.


Pet power is real

Apart from providing real relief during public health emergencies or natural disasters, dogs and cats in particular have a tremendous capacity to help with mental health issues, increase physical well-being, boost early childhood development and improve healthy ageing. Also, interest in pet adoption has boomed during the pandemic, FEDIAF noted, reflecting how humans turn to animal companionship in times of hardship. “Pet power is our way of referring to the special bond between our species and the many benefits that can be drawn from relationships and actions between people and companion animals."

“There’s a multitude of peer-reviewed studies illustrating the myriad beneficial effects of pet ownership to people” Hans-Guenther Dittrich, President of AnimalhealthEurope

On September 30, the WHO launched the Pan-European Mental Health Coalition, an initiative that paves the way for the recognition of pet power as a genuine booster for wellbeing and mental health. “Companion animals have multiple roles and we have quite a lot of studies about them, it’s not only my personal feeling,” commented MEP Sirpa Pietikäinen, a fierce advocate of animal welfare.


EU investment

In light of the positive results shown by Project Nosäis, Pet Alliance Europe calls on the EU to create an enabling environment that promotes investment in pet training and animal welfare. However, the Alliance also wants to go one step further, calling for a clear definition of the status of working dogs. “We would like to start a discussion on how to leverage this research and translate it into policies”, said FEDIAF President Annet Palamba.

“Many people claim that their pets have been a great support throughout the pandemic and especially in the very uncertain times when the crisis still had many unknowns this makes a lot of sense.” Annet Palamba, President of FEDIAF

Responding to Pet Alliance Europe’s plea, Andrea Gavinelli, Head of Animal Welfare at the Commission’s DG SANTE, said that there’s lack of data – a necessary element to determine if such policies can bring added value. “We need to bring forward evidence that could help us understand if any situation could be improved,” explained Gavinelli who also announced the upcoming launch of a public consultation to review animal welfare legislation. “The question is of detecting the priorities and goals that we want to highlight,” Gavinelli added.

“We don’t want to make any business, we never answered positively to any private company wanting to make business out of sniffer dogs. We want to push the concept of dogs serving humanity” Professor Dominique Grandjean

The associations are hopeful that by bringing the findings of projects such as Project Nosäis’ Covid-19 detection dogs to the attention of EU decision-makers, the wide-ranging benefits will be considered for policy development and ultimately to benefit society as a whole. Professor Grandjean concluded saying, “We don’t want to make any business, we never answered positively to any private company wanting to make business out of sniffer dogs. We want to push the concept of dogs serving humanity.”


This content was commissioned by Pet Alliance Europe and produced by Dods

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