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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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TRAVEL NEWS

Covid face mask rule on flights in Europe set to be eased

The mandatory EU-wide mask requirement for air travel is set to be dropped from Monday, May 16th, but airlines may still require passengers to wear masks on some or all flights

Covid face mask rule on flights in Europe set to be eased

Europe-wide facemask rules on flights are set to be ditched as early as next week in light of new recommendations from health and air safety experts.

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) dropped recommendations for mandatory mask-wearing in airports and during flights in updated Covid-19 safety measures for travel issued on Wednesday, May 11th.

The new rules are expected to be rolled out from Monday, May 16th, but airlines may still continue to require the wearing of masks on some or all of flights. And the updated health safety measures still say that wearing a face mask remains one of the best ways to protect against the transmission of the virus.

The joint EASA/ECDC statement reminded travellers that masks may still be required on flights to destinations in certain countries that still require the wearing of masks on public transport and in transport hubs.

It also recommends that vulnerable passengers should continue to wear a face mask regardless of the rules, ideally an FFP2/N95/KN95 type mask which offers a higher level of protection than a standard surgical mask.

“From next week, face masks will no longer need to be mandatory in air travel in all cases, broadly aligning with the changing requirements of national authorities across Europe for public transport,” EASA executive director Patrick Ky said in the statement. 

“For passengers and air crews, this is a big step forward in the normalisation of air travel. Passengers should however behave responsibly and respect the choices of others around them. And a passenger who is coughing and sneezing should strongly consider wearing a face mask, for the reassurance of those seated nearby.”  

ECDC director Andrea Ammon added: “The development and continuous updates to the Aviation Health Safety Protocol in light of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic have given travellers and aviation personnel better knowledge of the risks of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and its variants. 

“While risks do remain, we have seen that non-pharmaceutical interventions and vaccines have allowed our lives to begin to return to normal. 

“While mandatory mask-wearing in all situations is no longer recommended, it is important to be mindful that together with physical distancing and good hand hygiene it is one of the best methods of reducing transmission. 

“The rules and requirements of departure and destination states should be respected and applied consistently, and travel operators should take care to inform passengers of any required measures in a timely manner.”

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