The Oddities in the News Page

On this month's Oddities in the News Page:

German sniffer dogs detect COVID-19 with 94% accuracy


Auburn Castle
Time Travel Paradox
Almost Buried Alive
Time to Kill the Penny?
Circling Ships


HANOVER, Germany (Reuters) -- A German veterinary clinic has trained sniffer dogs to detect the novel coronavirus in human saliva samples with 94% accuracy.

The dogs are conditioned to scent out the "corona odour" that comes from cells in infected people, said Esther Schalke, a vet at Germany's armed forces school for service dogs.

Filou, a 3-year-old Belgian Shepherd, and Joe Cocker, a 1-year-old Cocker Spaniel, are two of the dogs being trained at Hanover's University of Veterinary Medicine.

"We did a study where we had dogs sniffing samples from COVID-positive patients and we can say that they have a 94% probability in our study ... that they can sniff them out," said Holger Volk, head of the veterinary clinic.

"So dogs can really sniff out people with infections and without infections, as well as asymptomatic and symptomatic COVID patients," he added.

Stephan Weil, premier of Lower Saxony, the state of which Hanover is the capital, said he was impressed with the study and called for a feasibility tests before the sniffer dogs are put to use in everyday life, such as on people attending concerts.

"We now need tests in selected events," Weil said.

In Finland, dogs trained to detect the novel coronavirus began sniffing passenger samples at Finland's Helsinki-Vantaa airport last September, in a pilot project alongside more usual testing at the airport.

Chile's Santiago international airport is also using canine detectors.

(Reporting by Leon Malherbe and Fanny Brodersen; Writing by Paul Carrel; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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Dogs can also detect COVID-19 through sweat

Sweat from people infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 has a distinct smell. We can’t detect it. Dogs, it now turns out, can.

“Just like humans, some dogs are more clever than others,” observes Dominique Grandjean. He’s a researcher at France’s National Veterinary School in Maisons-Alfort. He also oversees the training of French search and rescue dogs that work with Paris firefighters and emergency responders.

Grandjean’s team was among the first to show that dogs could be trained to detect the coronavirus in infected people. The team swabbed a roll of clean cotton under each volunteer’s arm for one minute. Then the researchers dropped the cotton into glass jars. Each jar was topped with a steel cone into which dogs could put their muzzles. This allowed the canines to sniff a sample without touching it.

Colin Furness is an epidemiologist, or disease detective, in Canada at the University of Toronto. Furness was not surprised to learn dogs can sniff out COVID-infected people. After all, they have a much better sense of smell than do people. They’ve already been used to detect diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, he notes.

Grandjean would like to see more airports and border crossings use dogs to find infected people. Conventional laboratory tests for the virus take at least 24 hours to deliver results. “The dogs can give you a positive result immediately,” he says.

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How does a dog's sense of smell work?

Dogs' sense of smell overpowers our own by orders of magnitude—it's 10,000 to 100,000 times as acute, scientists say. "Let's suppose they're just 10,000 times better," says James Walker, former director of the Sensory Research Institute at Florida State University, who, with several colleagues, came up with that jaw-dropping estimate during a rigorously designed, oft-cited study. "If you make the analogy to vision, what you and I can see at a third of a mile, a dog could see more than 3,000 miles away and still see as well."

What do dogs have that we don't? For one thing, they possess up to 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses, compared to about six million in us. And the part of a dog's brain that is devoted to analyzing smells is, proportionally speaking, 40 times greater than ours.

Dogs' noses also function quite differently than our own. When we inhale, we smell and breathe through the same airways within our nose. When dogs inhale, a fold of tissue just inside their nostril helps to separate these two functions. "We found that when airflow enters the nose it splits into two different flow paths, one for olfaction and one for respiration," says Brent Craven, a bioengineer at Pennsylvania State University who modeled airflow and odor transport using high-resolution MRI scans of a lab cadaver's nose (see Figure 1). Craven and colleagues are working to reverse-engineer the canine nose, in part to aid in the design of artificial "noses" that can sniff out odors as well as man's best friend can.

In us humans, the sense of smell is relegated to a small region on the roof of our nasal cavity, along the main airflow path. So the air we smell just goes in and out with the air we breathe. In dogs, about 12 percent of the inspired air, Craven's team found, detours into a recessed area in the back of the nose that is dedicated to olfaction, while the rest of the incoming air sweeps past that nook and disappears down through the pharynx to the lungs. Within the recessed area, the odor-laden air filters through a labyrinth of scroll-like bony structures called turbinates. Olfactory receptors within the tissue that lines the turbinates, in turn, "recognize" these odor molecules by their shape and dispatch electrical signals to the brain for analysis.

When we exhale through our nose, we send the spent air out the way it came in, forcing out any incoming odors. When dogs exhale, the spent air exits through the slits in the sides of their noses. The manner in which the exhaled air swirls out actually helps usher new odors into the dog's nose. More importantly, it allows dogs to sniff more or less continuously. In a study done at the University of Oslo in Norway, a hunting dog holding its head high into the wind while in search of game sniffed in a continuous stream of air for up to 40 seconds, spanning at least 30 respiratory cycles.

On top of all this, dogs have a second olfactory capability that we don't have, made possible by an organ we don't possess: the vomeronasal organ, also known as Jacobson's organ. Located in the bottom of a dog's nasal passage, Jacobson's organ picks up pheromones, the chemicals unique to each animal species that advertise mating readiness and other sex-related details.

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