A Way to Live Safely Despite Covid

Woman in airport

With the decline in recent days of the Omicron surge, a rising chorus of opinion advises us to learn to live with Covid. Unfortunately, the daily death rates from Covid (currently averaging ~2500) remind us that living with Covid implies also dying from it.

Despite the ongoing funerals, anti-mandate sentiment is finding little resistance from the pandemic-weary. In response, heads of state are dropping mask requirements, softening testing requirements, and shortening the length of quarantine after exposure. None of these policy changes is based on evidence that SARS-CoV-2 is going away. The Omicron variant, having wreaked its damage, is finding fewer new hosts but researchers are working to identify the next variants, any one of which could be equally devastating.

Rather, this policy retreat acknowledges that prevention measures have not been effective enough to warrant the costs they impose.  Canada has just announced it will no longer require PCR testing for fully vaccinated passengers prior to crossing its border, citing the personal expense of the PCR test and the millions of dollars the government spends on its random testing of travelers. Omicron pummeled Canada, as it did other countries, despite these testing measures, which have mostly been effective in disrupting people’s lives and creating obstacles for international travel.

The goal hasn’t changed

My family is welcoming the Canadian border crossing policy change, which will make it easier for us to visit each other. The unanswered question remains: If not this, then what?

Limiting transmission of a deadly virus remains a vital goal. We’ve achieved whatever effectiveness was possible from making vaccines and high-quality masks easily available. The Omicron tsunami proved the virus could exploit the gaps in personal protection to devastating effect for entire populations. In a perfect world we would have eradicated the virus with full deployment of vaccines and PPE. In our real world, we’re acknowledging limitations and ‘learning to live (die) with it.’

Alternatively, we could think differently about how and what resources to use, to reach the goal of living despite the virus.

An alternative

The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), Medical Detection Dogs, and Durham University have completed the first phase of a trial to determine that Covid-19 infection has a distinct odor pattern that’s detectable by dogs. (The pre-print article can be found here.) This study focuses on samples from people who are asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic for Covid. More than one quarter of the uninfected subjects displayed classic cold or Covid symptoms. Using a double-blind methodology, the dogs successfully distinguished Covid infections.

The study concluded that Covid infection causes a distinct body odor that’s detectable by dogs, and that this method could be used to screen large groups to find those individuals who need to be tested and quarantined.   

“Our preparatory work indicates that two dogs could screen 300 people in 30 min, for example, the time it takes to disembark from a plane, and PCR would only need to be used to test those individuals identified as positive by the dogs. This would result in far fewer individuals needing a RT-PCR test, allowing most travellers to continue their onward journey or mass event attendees with little inconvenience. If used at airports, dogs may also serve as a visual deterrent, reducing passengers travelling with false SARS-CoV-2 negative certificates, as has anecdotally been observed with explosive and drug detection dogs serving as a visual deterrent against drugs and explosives being brought to public events.”

“Using trained dogs and organic semi-conducting sensors to identify
asymptomatic and mild SARS-CoV-2 infections”, Claire Guest, Sarah Y Dewhirst et al

Covid-sniffing dogs would need training updates should a future mutation create a new odor profile. This, the researchers maintain, could be achieved with about two days of training, so the solution is scalable and expandable to meet future needs.

Don’t assume compliance

The beauty of this potential solution is in its non-reliance on human behavior. People can just live their lives. Some will act responsibly (wear masks or stay home when unwell); others won’t. All of our Covid health policies to date rely on people following policy for the good of themselves and others. Unfortunately, this is a false assumption: no group of people will comply with rules 100% of the time, and we’ve learned that even majority compliance is unlikely.

This is fundamental to much of the anger of the compliant and non-compliant alike. Someone following all the rules can interpret the ongoing malaise and threat from the pandemic as the result of those who openly flout the rules. The person who refuses to comply points to the evident ineffectiveness of these rules as reason to ignore them.

Ellie sniffing snow
A dog doing what she’s made to do

Therefore, let’s assume that public safety can’t rely entirely on human behavior. We should instead intermediate in places where people gather, using a screening methodology that relies on dogs who are trained to be consistent in their behavior. This method is quick and doesn’t require documentation, swabs, gadgets, or any effort by the people being sniffed. Covid sniffer dogs, using their natural abilities, would be our health monitors. Any individuals they identify as infected would receive care; the rest can go on with their lives. Despite Covid.

2 thoughts on “A Way to Live Safely Despite Covid

  1. The idea of employing the dogs as deterrents is great. But we have to careful of creating scenarios in which people demonize the pups?

    1. Sadly, these times do require anticipating uncivil behavior against those who only seek to promote health. Researchers and training organizations who are working in this area of canine detection of Covid are giving a lot of thought and care to maintaining the health of the dogs and their handlers while screening for the virus — that is, protection from the virus. You make a good point, that equally if not more important is to plan for protecting the safety of dogs and humans against potential human hostility. There are few examples of dogs being infected with Covid; we have an excess of examples of human hostility against masking, vaccines etc. The latter is much more likely, and should be planned for. Excellent point.

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