In a first for the country, the Indian Army is using its dogs for quick detection of COVID-19 to cut downtime delays associated with regular diagnostic techniques.
The canine members of the armed force are known for their pronounced olfactory capability. They have earlier helped in explosive and narcotics detection, search and rescue operations, and other challenging tasks. Now, they have another job.
Two dogs two-year-old cocker spaniel Casper and one-year-old Jaya, a ‘chippiparai’, which is an indigenous breed from Tamil Nadu have been trained to detect COVID-19 by sniffing samples of sweat and urine, senior Army officials said.
A demonstration of their skills using real samples was held on Tuesday on the premises of the 48 Military Veterinary Hospital at Delhi Cantonment. Their handlers were wearing full PPE kits.
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Lt Col Surinder Saini, the instructor at the Dog Training Facility of the Remount Veterinary Corps (RVC) Centre in Meerut, said these dogs are “pioneering canines” of not just the Army but of entire India.
“Countries like the UK, Finland, France, Russia, Germany, Lebanon, the UAE and the US have already trained dogs for detection of COVID-19. Dogs have been previously used abroad to detect malaria, diabetes and Parkinson’s disease, but this is the first time canines have been used for medical detection in India,” he told reporters.
To a question on where the dogs are being deployed, Saini said that after their training in September, the dogs were deployed at the Army’s transit camp in Delhi in November. From December, they are being deployed at the transit camp in Chandigarh from where troops move to large areas, including the Ladakh region, under the North Command.
“Army dogs were successfully trained on specific biomarkers emanating from urine and sweat samples of positive patients. These samples do not contain living virus, but only volatile metabolic biomarkers, which the dogs have been trained to detect. Prior to bringing in front of them, to avoid any surface contact transmission to people handling the dogs, the samples are first exposed to UV rays,” Saini said.
“This is the first time in India that the olfactory capability of canines are being used to detect tissues infected with pathogens releasing volatile metabolic biomarkers,” he added.
A senior official said that the Indian Army has around 1,200 dogs, out of which nearly 700 are deployed.
“Besides these two dogs, eight other dogs, including four labradors, are also undergoing training,” Saini said.
One-year-old Mani, another chippiparai dog undergoing training, also showed his skills during the demonstration. Mani is the elder brother of Jaya.
“The use of such canines in detection of COVID-19 can assist in quick and real time detection of the disease, and help in cutting down scale of RT-PCR and rapid antigen tests, both of which take time. And, in Army, time is of the essence. Besides, these dogs can be used at live events to screen people,” the instructor said.
Saini said the dogs have sniffed out 22 positive cases of COVID-19 from 800 samples at the Delhi transit camp and nearly 3,000 samples at the Chandigarh transit camp.
“Their response time after detection is one second or even less, and accuracy rate is over 90 per cent,” he said.
He added that the dogs have been trained to sit next to a sample kept in a container if it is positive for the disease and move forward after sniffing if it is negative.
Positive and suspected samples were obtained from the Military Hospital, Meerut Cantonment, and the Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Subharti Medical College, Meerut, for the purpose of the training, officials said.
“The sensitivity and specificity of both the dogs obtained from screening of 279 urine and 267 sweat samples during the initial trial procedure was found to be very high,” a senior official said.
Scientifically, it is evident that infected body tissues release “unique volatile metabolic biomarkers”, which are used as disease signatures for detection of disease by medical detection dogs, he said.
A concerted effort has been made to train an indigenous breed of dog under the prime minister’s initiative of ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat‘ besides a cocker spaniel to detect the “volatile of COVID-19 disease from urine and sweat samples of positive cases by comparative method”, the official said.
These dogs are constantly monitored by their handlers, and their body temperature is recorded in the morning and the evening, the officials said.