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Corona sniffer dogs will not be used in Belgium

© Pete Nuij for Unsplash

Eleven trained sniffer dogs that received an additional training in tracing people infected with the coronavirus will not be deployed in Belgium after all, the Task Force Testing has decided.

The dogs, which are already in use as sniffer dogs for sniffing out drugs or victims buried in earthquakes, started training in January under the supervision of Dr Chris Callewaert, who is an expert in skin microbiology, or in layman’s terms, sweaty smells.

Dogs have around 800 more smell receptors than humans, and are able to pick up scents that humans cannot detect. Taken together, those receptors make a dog’s sense of smell between 10,000 and 100,000 times more acute than ours.

They are used to search for earthquake and avalanche victims, people with cancer, as well as anyone in possession of drugs.

It was also research carried out in Paris earlier this year that revealed that those talents could also be used in detecting a person infected with the Covid-19 virus. Apparently, the infection causes the person to secrete certain chemicals, even when they may have no symptoms. Dogs can be trained to recognised that smell. The breed of dog has no effect on their success.

The dogs have completed their training, and passed with flying colours: a specificity of 98%, and a sensitivity of 81%.

Specificity means that from a sample of 100 negative samples, the dogs will only pick out two as positive.

Sensitivity means that from 100 positive samples, the dogs missed 19. Spectacular results. And as there appears to be a basic scent to the virus, the dogs were able to detect the different variants with equal effectiveness, without having to be trained for each one specifically.
The following video talks about a live experiment carried out at Helsinki Airport.

However, despite those promising results and the rapid approach of holiday season, the 11 dogs and any that may follow will not be seen at Belgium’s entry ports this summer.

The problem? There is no legal framework for the use of medical sniffer dogs – as opposed to dogs used to detect possessions such as drugs, these dogs are deployed to detect a personal condition.

But the group in charge of the research intends to find a way out of the legal tangle.

There was a little bit of disappointment among the researchers, but not much,” said Chris Callewaert.

We are especially happy with the result. We never thought that those dogs would be so successful. Everyone was very happy that they participated and I too thought they were very pleasant to work with.”

The dogs will not be unemployed, however. They all have jobs to go back to, in other smell-detection disciplines.