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France trains dogs to detect coronavirus in Corsica research project

Dogs look on as they wait with their owner to take part in a training session to learn to detect the COVID-19, (the novel coronavirus) by the smell, on April 30, 2020, in Ajaccio, on the French Mediterranean island of Corsica.
Dogs look on as they wait with their owner to take part in a training session to learn to detect the COVID-19, (the novel coronavirus) by the smell, on April 30, 2020, in Ajaccio, on the French Mediterranean island of Corsica. AFP - PASCAL POCHARD-CASABIANCA
4 min

Eight dogs have become part of the latest initiative to tackle Covid-19 in France. Since last Friday, these animals are being trained in Ajaccio on the French island of Corsica to detect a possible smell of the virus, as part of a trial conducted by veterinarians and firemen.

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Eight dogs have become part of the latest initiative to tackle Covid-19 in France. Since last Friday, these animals are being trained in Ajaccio on the French island of Corsica to detect a possible smell of the virus, as part of a trial conducted by veterinarians and firemen.

Named Nosais, this research, developed by Professor Dominique Grandjean of the National Veterinary School of Alfort, near Paris, plans to experiment with cynotechnical skills in order to detect particular odours that could be emitted by patients who are positive for the coronavirus.

 "If we manage to validate this experiment, the aim is to provide a complementary solution to the tests that already exist" to detect the disease, Aymeric Bernard, chief veterinarian and dog-technical adviser to the Fire and Rescue Service of South Corsica (SIS 2A) which is taking part in the project., explained to the French news agency AFP.

"The hospital needs numerous and reliable means of screening. Today, the PCR test has a reliability of 70%. We therefore need to cross-reference this test with other types of screening,” the director of the Ajaccio hospital, Jean-Luc Pesce, said.

 With the support of the Prefecture of Corse-du-Sud, the Regional Health Agency of Corsica, and the Ajaccio Hospitals of Mercy and Eugenia, six Malinois shepherds and a Cursinu bitch from the Corsican Fire Brigade are being tested on the site of a future veterinary clinic.

"These dogs are usually used to look for people who have disappeared or are buried under a cave-in," says Aymeric Benard.

A Malinois shepherd from the gendarmerie, "used for searching for specific products" and therefore already trained in "odorology", has joined the team, he adds.

Dogs detecting other diseases

 Ajaccien hospitals will provide about 50 swabs placed under the armpits of patients who test positive for the virus.

Inserted in sterile jars, they will be placed in a small hatch, near the dog's favourite toy. 

Alongside its master, the animal will then come and breathe in the smell before retrieving its toy and will therefore associate it with the game.

Then, the jar will be installed in one of the racks in the detection room. The goal for the dog will then be to "mark" by sitting or lying down the support containing the positive compress, before being rewarded with his toy. This process can be repeated about 50 times a day for the next few weeks.

Testing the dogs

In the second phase, the dogs will be put to the test.

At the same time, the University of Corte (Haute-Corse), associated with the project, will work on the scientific validation of the protocol to find out at the cynotechnical level whether the dogs can detect the smell of Covid-19.

"In addition, we want to check whether, using gas chromatography and mass spectrometry laboratory techniques, we can identify one or more compounds that are only found on Covid positives," reveals Aymeric Benard.

The dog is already used to detect several chronic diseases, some cancers, malaria, or Parkinson's disease.

 "Recently, the Americans have also used the dog within cattle herds for the detection of a viral disease and this gave very good results", indicates Aymeric Benard.

The first results of this Nosais trial will be known in mid-May. After Corsica, other territories should join the experiment in the next few weeks, such as the Seine-et-Marne fire and rescue service or the Marseille marine fire brigade.

The same Nosais trial is being launched in Lebanon under the aegis of the Franco-Lebanese University and similar projects exist in Germany, Canada, Norway, the United Kingdom, and the United Arab Emirates, according to the experiment's initiators.

 

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