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Sit, stay, sniff: Italy trains Covid-19 detection dogs to smell out virus

A new project in Rome will train sniffer dogs to detect the presence of coronavirus in human sweat.

Sit, stay, sniff: Italy trains Covid-19 detection dogs to smell out virus
An instructor poses with his sniffer dog during an experimental training to detect Covid-19 through sweat, at the Campus Bio-medico University Hospital in Rome on March 31, 2021. (Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP)

It was Harlock’s first day at coronavirus training school and she already showed promise.

The one-year-old German Shepherd’s task on Wednesday morning was simply to place her slightly wet nose on a black tube.

“Sniff,” encouraged her trainer, Massimiliano Macera, who was quick to reward his furry student with treats whenever nose met tube.

“She’s already got it!” he added, smiling at his protégé, part of a team of dogs learning how to sniff out Covid-19.

Sniffer dog Roma takes part in an experimental training to detect Covid-19 through sweat at a university hospital in Rome. Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP

The project, which began ten days ago at Rome’s Campus Bio-Medico University Hospital, involves training dogs to detect the presence of coronavirus in human sweat.

If found to be reliable, it could prove a faster and cheaper method of detection in crowd situations, whether a football match or rock concert, say those working on the project.

“If we have 1,000 people we have to screen with an antigen swab, it would take us about 20 minutes for each person,” said Massimo Ciccozzi, a professor of epidemiology at the university.

“A dog, using their olfactory senses, would take 30 seconds maximum.”

At ease: Roma takes a break. Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP

Dogs, with their sensitive noses packed with receptors, are increasingly being used to detect human diseases, including cancer, diabetes or Parkinson’s.

Since the coronavirus pandemic hit, researchers in countries around the world including Finland, Germany, France and the United Arab Emirates have launched sniffer dog trials.

VIDEO: How European countries could use Covid-sniffing dogs to reduce infections

But some scientists believe such testing has not yet been widely adopted by authorities in part because of a lack of peer-reviewed literature.

Dogs in other countries, including Sammy in Belgium, are also training their noses to detect Covid-19. Photo by JAMES ARTHUR GEKIERE / BELGA / AFP

‘Work is play’ for these professional pooches

Macera’s company SecurityDogs has six pups in the programme, among them Roma. The four-year-old Dutch Shepherd was outfitted in her uniform, a turquoise-and-black harness proclaiming the dog’s Covid-fighting role.

“The first part of the dog training is getting them to recognise the volatile organic compounds that characterise the Covid disease,” said Silvia Angeletti, the hospital’s lab director. She called the study the first based on collaboration between laboratory research and field experimentation.

After the dogs can reliably recognise the disease, the project will focus on patients at a drive-through testing centre on the campus.

Good girl! Roma gets treats when she sniffs out the coronavirus. Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP

For now, during the training phase, biological samples come from patients with coronavirus inside the hospital.

Those willing to participate will turn over a gauze sample of their sweat, which will be placed inside a metal receptacle inside the testing room to be sniffed by the dogs. The results will be compared with those of a molecular nasal swab performed on each patient.

READ ALSO: Moving to Italy with pets? Here’s what you need to know

For now, Harlock the German Shepherd is just having fun inside the small makeshift testing room, blissfully unaware of the potential importance of her work and that of her four-legged colleagues.

“They can’t wait to come in in the morning,” Macera said of his dogs. “Their work is play. These guys are already experts, they do it with a certain naturalness and the youngest ones are starting.”

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COVID-19

Covid-19: Are Italian live events at risk of being postponed?

As the infection rate rises sharply across the country, Italian virologists are calling for concerts and festivals to be rescheduled.

Covid-19: Are Italian live events at risk of being postponed?

Italy has seen a large increase in the number of Covid-19 cases in recent days, so much so that a number of virologists across the country are now urging the government to postpone major live events in a bid to curb infections. 

According to a new report by Italy’s independent health watchdog, the Gimbe Foundation, 595,349 new cases were recorded in the week from June 29th to July 5th; a worrying 55 percent increase on the previous week. 

In the same time span, the country also registered a 32.8 percent rise in the number of hospitalised patients, which went from 6,035 to 8,003.  

The latest Covid wave, which is being driven by the highly contagious Omicron 5 variant, is a “real cause for concern”, especially in terms of a “potential patient overload”, said Nino Cartabellotta, president of the Gimbe Foundation. 

As Italian cities prepare to host a packed calendar of concerts and festivals this summer, health experts are questioning whether such events should actually take place given the high risk of transmission associated with mass gatherings.

READ ALSO: What tourists in Italy need to know if they get Covid-19

“Rescheduling these types of events would be the best thing to do right now,” said Massimo Ciccozzi, Director of Epidemiology at Campus Bio-Medico University of Rome. 

The summer wave is expected to peak in mid-July but, Ciccozzi warns, the upcoming live events might “delay [the peak] until the end of July or even beyond” and extend the infection curve.

Antonello Maruotti, Professor of Statistics at LUMSA University of Rome, recently shared Ciccozzi’s concerns, saying that live events as big as Maneskin’s scheduled Rome concert are “definitely not a good idea”. 

The Italian rock band are slated to perform at the Circus Maximus on Saturday, July 9th but the expected turnout – over 70,000 fans are set to attend the event – has raised objections from an array of Italian doctors, with some warning that the concert might cause as many as 20,000 new cases.

If it were to materialise, the prospected scenario would significantly aggravate Lazio’s present medical predicament as there are currently over 186,000 Covid cases in the region (nearly 800 patients are receiving treatment in local hospitals). 

Italian rock band Maneskin performing in Turin

Italian rock band Maneskin are expected to perform at the Circus Maximus in Rome on Saturday, July 9th. Photo by Marco BERTORELLO / AFP

But, despite pleas to postpone the event, it is likely that Maneskin’s concert will take place as scheduled.

Alessandro Onorato, Rome’s Tourism Councillor, said that rescheduling is “out of question” and that “all recommendations from the local medical authorities will be adopted” with the help of the event’s organisers and staff on the ground.

At the time of writing, there is also no indication that the Italian government will consider postponing other major live events scheduled to take place in the coming weeks, though the situation is evolving rapidly and a U-turn on previous dispositions can’t be ruled out.

READ ALSO: At a glance: What are the Covid-19 rules in Italy now?

On this note, it is worth mentioning that Italy has now scrapped all of its former Covid measures except the requirement to wear FFP2 face masks on public transport (though not on planes) and in healthcare settings.

The use of face coverings is, however, still recommended in all crowded areas, including outdoors – exactly the point that leading Italian doctors are stressing in the hope that live events will not lead to large-scale infection.

Antonio Magi, President of Rome’s OMCEO (College of Doctors, Surgeons and Dentists), said: “Our advice is to wear FFP2 masks […] in high-risk situations.”

“I hope that young people will heed our recommendations and think about the health risks that their parents or grandparents might be exposed to after the event [they attend].”

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