COVID-19 Sniffing Canines: FIU’s New Method to Detect the Virus

The Belgian Malinois Cobra sniffing for COVID-19 odor on scent wheel / photo courtesy of Flickr

Angela Rivas / Staff Writer 

Detector dogs are now being trained at FIU to spot COVID-19, in an effort to limit the spread of the virus on campus. 

Starting in the Fall of 2020, the International Forensic Research Institute at FIU began training four dogs: Cobra, a Belligian Malinois, One Betta, a Dutch Shepherd, Mac, a small Terrier mix and Hubble, a Border Collie mix to detect the odor of the virus in buildings around the Modesto Maidique Campus.

“A canine program is an addition to other safeguards that we have in place. We need to fight this thing from all ends and what this does is create an accurate screening process that can be done instantly,” said Julian Mendel, an FIU professor and assistant director of the IFRI.

They are trained to detect traces of the virus in common areas at the university such as: classrooms, tables, chairs, and auditoriums. 

Along with working at FIU, the canine team was also invited to the governor’s office in Tallahassee, in an effort to screen individuals for COVID-19. 

This new screening process is used as an effective way to detect the virus in large events. 

Events such as Miami Heat basketball games have used COVID-19 sniffing canines to limit the spread of the virus within large groups of people. 

“What we might end up doing is have individuals present the mask that they were wearing and that is what the dog is going to sniff to see if they have COVID-19,” said Mendel. 

In order to detect the virus’s odor, the dog’s underwent training, taking up to at least eight months, according to Dr. DeEtta Mills, director of the IFRI.

Dr. DeEtta Mills, director of the IFRI/ photo courtesy of FIU 

But, FIU’s experienced canine team detected the scent of COVID-19  in only a few days of training, while dogs with no experience can take up to eight months.  

Cobra, the Belgian Malinois and One Betta, the Dutch Shepherd, were previously used in FIU’s Laurel Wilt Disease Canine Detection project in 2017, to help identify a fungal disease which killed a significant population of Avocado trees, Mills mentioned.

Mack and Hubble are two rescue dogs from FIU’s StartUP company, Innovative Detection Concepts. 

The team trains the dogs for one to three hours per day and have reached an average of 80 to 90 percent accuracy of detecting the virus, according to Mendel. 

The dogs start training by using a detection method patented by FIU Provost Kenneth Furton called the Universal Detection Calibrant. 

The calibrant is a pure chemical not found in nature which was first applied to the canines in order to detect this unknown scent, said Mendel.

She also brought up how these dogs are trained through positive reinforcement using toys or food to identify these scents before being introduced to COVID-19.

“We ask them to find a particular scent and give them a positive reward. In the case of our dogs, usually it’s a toy,” said Mills. 

Later, the team adds the COVID-19 odor with the calibrant to help the dogs distinguish the two odors. 

The COVID-19 strain was introduced by presenting the dogs with face masks of patients who tested positive, provided by Baptist Health South Florida Hospital. The team first treats the masks with an ultraviolet light, which kills off the virus and allows the dogs to be safe from catching COVID-19.

“That inactivates the virus so that it is no longer infectious, but it doesn’t change the overall odor profile. So now, we have a safe material we can then put in a training aid,” said Mills. 

The virus is put into a training wheel that allows the dogs to detect the COVID-19 scent and alert the team when they do. 

The dogs must gain trust from the team to make the project a success, stated Erica Garcia, an FIU freshman majoring in environmental studies, who joined the project last fall semester.

Erica Garcia and the Belgian Malinois,Cobra / photo courtesy of Erica Garcia

She first considered this project as a way to start adjusting to going out, again as her classes were still online. But, as she started working with the dogs, her perspective changed. 

“I didn’t realize the gravity of the situation until I realized wait, I’m working with COVID-19. I’m working with something that we all can relate to,” said Garcia. 

As a first year student she feels extremely lucky to be working with the team and she says her duties include recording videos, hiding the scent in the training wheel, and helping guide the dogs. 

This pandemic has affected many around the world and FIU is taking steps to combat the virus in our community. 

“It’s very unfortunate that we’re in this situation and I think that while we have a ray of light at the end of the tunnel, we have to stay vigilant,” said Mendel. “It’s an amazing feeling to know that the work you are doing is going to help someone.”

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