Dogs sniffing out COVID-19 in Hampton Roads may one day help stop the spread

Portsmouth

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (WAVY) — James Overton with American K-9 Interdiction trains dogs to detect explosives, drugs and bed bugs.

But the COVID-19 virus? They apparently can do that, too.

“I was extremely skeptical of it,” he said. Then the dogs proved him wrong.

10 On Your Side went to watch a training session at Bon Secours Maryview Medical Center in Portsmouth. Inside a large room, he had seven buckets set up with tubes attached. Inside each of the tubes was a sample taken from a cheek swab of patients. Six were COVID-19 negative and one was positive.

Overton and his training partner brought in the dogs one by one and let their sniffers go to work.

“What the dogs are looking for is what they call a “volatile organic compound,” VOC, that’s what gives off the odor for everything in the world and we know that the viruses don’t have a lot of molecular weight behind them, so it gives off a very small amount of VOC. That was our concern initially going into this,” Overton said.

Miles, a 3-year-old chocolate lab, started sniffing and went right to the positive sample. He did it again and again.

There are three dogs in the program. They’ve been training for about five months, and right now they’re about 90% accurate, according to Overton.

“It’s been really interesting watching,” said Jan Phillips, the vice president of nursing with Bon Secours Mary Immaculate in Newport News, one of the hospitals providing the samples. The trainers are also getting samples from other Bon Secours and Sentara hospitals through a partnership with the Eastern Virginia Healthcare Coalition.

“I’ve seen the dogs perform a couple of times and they are spot on,” Phillips said. She added that their patients are happy to volunteer samples. “If something good can come out of this illness [they’re] suffering with, then [they] would like to help.”

The plan is to use the dogs at sports stadiums, concerts, airports, cruise ships — any large public event where COVID-19 could spread. People would swab their cheeks, maybe 10 at a time, and then the dogs could go to work.

If the dog alerts to COVID-19, the person would be taken for a PCR COVID-19 test to confirm.

There is still a lot of work to be done. The study will go into a double-blind phase with outside experts in both the medical and dog training fields in the next couple of weeks.

Overton told WAVY if all goes as planned, you could see the dogs before your next flight or concert within the next few months.

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