Lebanese doctor Riad Sarkis says he can help curb COVID-19 globally. As he speaks inside Beirut airport, one of his secret weapons is wagging its tail next to him. Specifically trained sniffer dogs can detect COVID in a person in a few seconds, including in very early stages when a PCR test would yield a negative result. “Man’s best friend” doesn’t even begin to describe how Dr Sarkis views dogs, which he argues can save more human lives than ever before by stopping the spread of the pandemic. “The day we build a machine with an electronic nose that amplifies smells 10,000 times, then we can replace the dogs. For now, we need them,” Sarkis says.
The effusive professor, who splits his time and work between France and Lebanon, has temporarily sidelined his passions for music and poetry to stay on a war footing against the pandemic that has brought the world to a standstill. A digestive system surgery professor and oncologist, Sarkis had spent 12 years researching how dogs could help detect cancer and increase chances of early treatment. “When COVID appeared, I thought why not try. And it worked,” he recounts.
Research was conducted with France’s Maisons-Alfort veterinary school, a leading institution founded in the 18th century, and various labs and universities. The results were staggering: the hyper-sensitive snouts of trained sniffer dogs were almost infallible. “PCR tests have a margin of error that can reach 30 percent. With dogs, it’s less than five percent,” he says. Each dog can process hundreds of samples every day, the only wages they need are biscuits or rubber toys and they deliver results on the spot. The technique is not intended to replace PCR testing but has been rolled out in a number of international airports such as Dubai, Helsinki and Sydney.
At a training facility provided by Bank Audi in Beirut, Rox and Sky, an Alsatian and a Malinois, are being trained by dog handler Carlo Selman. “These dogs are a gift from God to combat COVID,” he says, as Sky wiggles in excitement ahead of a new exercise. Replicating the set-up at an airport terminal, a partition shields the dogs from the testing area, where passengers are ushered into booths. The underarm sweat sample is collected by the passengers, who are generally only too happy not to have a swab drilled into their nostrils.
The cotton pad is dropped in a glass container, which is in turn placed at the small end of cones that flare open on the other side of the partition. Pacing down the row of cones on their handlers’ leash, the dogs poke their muzzles in each one. If a sample is positive, they stop and sit in front of it, waiting for their treat. Sniffer dogs with K9 unit experience in explosives or drugs detection can be trained in weeks.
Sarkis explains that the accuracy and speed of the dogs’ testing skills should be a key to stemming the spread of the COVID pandemic. “By the time a passenger carrying COVID gets PCR results, he has entered the country and very often the damage is done,” he says. Dogs can detect COVID at a very early stage, which allows for the isolation of asymptomatic people who would otherwise be unwittingly spreading the virus. The use of dogs is not limited to airports and Sarkis hopes to spread the technique to a wide range of occasions and locations. The speed of canine screening could make it an attractive option for buildings and events hosting large numbers of visitors, such as theatres and weddings.
The use of dogs for COVID detection is also a milestone in scientific research, Sarkis said. “It’s a fantastic innovation because it’s the first time we’re able to demonstrate that a virus gives off specific scents,” he said. “This technique will be implemented with a lot of pathologies in the future,” he predicts. “Unfortunately, we should expect pathologies that could be even worse than COVID.” – AFP