With cases of Covid-19 on the rise again in Hawaii, a Big Island school is hoping to permanently deploy a pair of four-footed detectives to help sniff out the virus in students and staff. And maybe invasive species and tree-killing fungus as well.

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Volcano School of Arts and Sciences recently completed an 8-week pilot project with a female Belgian Malinois named Cobra. The 8-year-old dog is trained to detect a variety of scents from fungal pathogens to coronavirus.

Cobra’s highly sensitive sense of smell is not unusual. Dogs have over 300 million scent receptors in their nasal cavities compared to some 5 million in humans. Dogs with specialized training are commonly used for sniffing out drugs, cadavers, explosives, avalanche victims and people buried under earthquake rubble.

Emerging research, including a new study led by a Maui-based canine expert trained in medical bio-detection, suggests that dogs are highly effective at detecting Covid by picking up on volatile organic compounds found in the breath, urine and sweat of infected people.

That’s what the pilot project at the Volcano-based public charter school seems to have demonstrated. The school spearheaded the Covid detection project with an innovation grant from the governor’s office. Two other Big Island public charter schools helped with cost sharing and hosted Cobra in their classrooms: Ka Umeke Kaeo in Keaukaha and Innovations in Kailua-Kona.

Cobra visits students at Volcano School of Arts and Sciences. Courtesy: Volcano School of Arts and Sciences

“Cobra is a star canine,” said Kalima Kinney, principal of Volcano School of Arts and Sciences. “She’s very friendly. The students really bonded with her.”

The dog is owned by Innovation Detection Concepts, based in Florida. Her recent stint on the Big Island was her second tour of duty in Hawaii.

The U.S. Forest Service originally brought Cobra to Hawaii island in 2018 to help the agency get a handle on rapid ohia death, a fungal disease that has wiped out swaths of ohia forest on the island. The dog had previously trained to detect beetle-transmitted laurel wilt disease that was killing avocado trees in Florida.

Cobra’s work on the Big Island four years ago was proof of concept, essentially a trial run to see if the dog could detect fungal samples hidden in live ohia trees. Researchers were searching for a way to detect the fungus before the trees showed visible signs of distress. That way foresters could apply a chemical treatment to save the trees from rapid ohia death.

Cobra at work sniffing masks used to protect against Covid-19. Courtesy of Volcano School of Arts and Sciences

Cobra performed well in the scent detection trials, said Kinney, whose husband is a Forest Service research ecologist who worked on the project.

When the Covid pandemic began to sweep the U.S., Cobra switched gears. She underwent training to detect Covid on exhaled breath samples using methodology developed by researchers at Florida International University.

Dogs trained at the university’s International Forensic Research Institute can identify odors produced by metabolic changes in infected people. The dogs can achieve up to 98% accuracy after they complete the training, according to a news release by the Volcano school.

During her recent time on the Big Island, Cobra spent her days shuttling between the three public charter schools. Students would place their masks in a designated spot and Cobra would use her high-powered nose to sniff out viral odors. If she got a hit, Cobra would lie down. The school would promptly notify the student’s family that the child should be tested for Covid.

During the time Cobra was on the island, students learned about the science of canine scent detection, dog training and handling, as well as careers where dogs are used, such as law enforcement, agriculture and health care, said Aubrey Hawk, a Volcano school board member.

Some students got to practice being assistant handlers with Cobra, who is also an emotional support dog. Now that Cobra has returned to Florida, teachers involved in the pilot project are developing curriculum and citizen science-based projects for the Hawaii PK-12 Research & Development Consortium. The consortium is a network of schools in Hawaii collaborating to expand experiential, culturally relevant learning.

Kinney hopes to raise $280,000 to train, purchase and deploy two scent-detection dogs who can permanently live on the Big Island. They would be trained to detect Covid as well as up to five additional scent targets. The targets could include fungal pathogens, brown tree snakes and other invasive species, she said.

Cobra works with dog handler Kaikoa Hauoli Nalu. Courtesy: Volcano School of Arts and Sciences

“The benefits here are not only detecting human disease but also plant and animal diseases,” Kinney said.

This isn’t the first time Covid detection dogs have been used in Hawaii. The nonprofit Assistance Dogs of Hawaii, based on Maui, worked with Queen’s Medical Center in canine Covid detection research led by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

The 2021 study, submitted for peer review, found that specially trained dogs were able to rapidly detect Covid, even in people who were asymptomatic, with up to 94% accuracy.

More recently, four Labrador retrievers from Assistance Dogs of Hawaii have been screening students entering Seabury Hall, a private college prep school in Makawao on Maui. The dogs sniff sweat samples taken from students who volunteer for the pilot project, said the nonprofit’s executive director Maureen Maurer.

Maurer is the principal investigator on a new study published on May 7 in Open Forum Infectious Diseases, the open access, online journal of the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

Using 584 sweat samples taken from patients at The Queen’s Medical Center, non-hospitalized patients at an outpatient Covid testing site, and at the homes of participating volunteers, researchers found the dogs detected Covid with 98% accuracy.

The study concluded that canine olfaction is an accurate and feasible method for diagnosing Covid in asymptomatic, and pre-symptomatic infected individuals.

Her research remains ongoing and she’s planning to share the protocol she created with other agencies that can scale it worldwide. Maurer is currently consulting with the California Department of Public Health to train dogs using her methodology to screen students at public schools.

“We’re finding consistently that the dogs are able to detect the virus two days earlier than PCR tests,” said Maurer. “It’s very exciting and that’s what we’re working on right now.

“It could be groundbreaking,” she added.



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