As cases of Covid-19 rise again in Hawaii, a Big Island school is hoping to permanently deploy a pair of four-legged detectives to track down the virus among students and staff. And maybe invasive species and tree-destroying fungi too.
The Volcano School of Arts and Sciences recently completed an 8-week pilot with a Belgian Malinois named Cobra. The 8-year-old dog is trained to recognize a wide range of odors from fungal pathogens to coronavirus.
Cobra’s highly sensitive sense of smell is not uncommon. Dogs have over 300 million scent receptors in their nasal cavities, compared to around 5 million in humans. Specially trained dogs are often used to find drugs, carcasses, explosives, avalanche victims, and people buried under earthquake debris.
New research, including a new study led by a Maui canine expert trained in medical biodetection, suggests dogs can be very effective at detecting Covid by ingesting volatile organic compounds found in the breath, urine and sweat of infected people.
That seems to have been shown by the pilot project at the public charter school in Volcano. The school led the Covid detection project with an innovation grant from the governor’s office. Two other Big Island public charter schools helped share costs and hosted Cobra in their classrooms: Ka Umeke Kaeo in Keaukaha and Innovations in Kailua-Kona.
“Cobra is a star dog,” said Kalima Kinney, director of the Volcano School of Arts and Sciences. “She’s very friendly. The students really bonded with her.”
The dog is owned by Florida-based Innovation Detection Concepts. Her last stay on the Big Island was her second business trip to Hawaii.
The US Forest Service originally brought cobra to the island of Hawaii in 2018 to help the agency deal with the rapid death of Ohia, a fungal disease that has wiped out large swaths of the island’s Ohia forest. The dog had previously trained to spot the beetle-borne laurel wilt that was killing avocado trees in Florida.
Cobra’s work on the Big Island four years ago was a proof of concept, essentially a test run to see if the dog could spot specimens of fungus hidden in living ohia trees. The researchers were looking for a way to detect the fungus before the trees showed any visible signs of stress. In this way, foresters could apply a chemical treatment to save the trees from rapid ohia death.
Cobra performed well in the scent detection trials, said Kinney, whose husband is a Forest Service research ecologist who worked on the project.
As the Covid pandemic began sweeping the US, Cobra switched gears. She undertook training to detect Covid in exhaled breath samples using a method developed by researchers at Florida International University.
Dogs trained at the university’s International Forensic Research Institute can detect odors produced by metabolic changes in infected individuals. According to a press release from Vulkanschule, the dogs can achieve up to 98% accuracy after completing the training.
During her final tenure on the Big Island, Cobra spent her days shuttling between the three charter public schools. The students placed their masks in a specific spot and Cobra used her strong nose to sniff out viral smells. If hit, Cobra would lie down. The school would immediately inform the student’s family that the child was to be tested for Covid.
While Cobra was on the island, the students learned about the science of canine scent detection, dog training and handling, and professions that use dogs, such as law enforcement, agriculture and healthcare, said Aubrey Hawk, a Volcano School board member.
Some students got to practice being handlers with Cobra, who is also an emotional support dog. Now that Cobra has returned to Florida, the teachers involved in the pilot are developing curriculum and citizen science projects for the Hawaii PK-12 Research & Development Consortium. The Consortium is a network of schools in Hawaii working together to expand experiential, culturally relevant learning.
Kinney hopes to raise $280,000 to train, buy and use two scent detection dogs who can live permanently on the Big Island. They would be trained to detect Covid as well as up to five additional odor targets. Targets could include fungal pathogens, brown tree snakes and other invasive species, she said.
“The advantages here are not only the detection of human diseases, but also plant and animal diseases,” said Kinney.
This isn’t the first time Covid sniffer dogs have been used in Hawaii. Maui-based nonprofit Assistance Dogs of Hawaii worked with Queen’s Medical Center on canine Covid detection research led by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.
The 2021 study, submitted for peer review, found that specially trained dogs were able to quickly detect Covid, even in asymptomatic humans, with up to 94% accuracy.
More recently, four Assistance Dogs of Hawaii Labrador retrievers examined students entering Seabury Hall, a private college preparatory school in Makawao, Maui. The dogs sniff sweat samples from students who volunteer for the pilot, said Maureen Maurer, executive director of the nonprofit.
Maurer is the principal investigator of a new study published May 7 in the Open Forum Infectious Diseases, the open-access online journal of the Infectious Diseases Society of America.
Using 584 sweat samples taken from patients at Queen’s Medical Center, non-hospitalized patients at an outpatient Covid testing site and in the homes of participating volunteers, the researchers found that the dogs detected Covid with a 98% accuracy.
The study concluded that dogs’ sense of smell is an accurate and viable method of diagnosing Covid in asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic infected individuals.
Her research continues and she plans to share the protocol she created with other agencies who can scale it globally. Maurer is currently consulting with the California Department of Health and Human Services to train dogs using her method to screen students in public schools.
“We consistently find that the dogs can detect the virus two days earlier than PCR tests,” Maurer said. “It’s very exciting and we’re working on it right now.
“It could be groundbreaking,” she added.