Note: Vaccines for the coronavirus have begun to make their way into distribution, prompting hope for a better 2021. Along with this, calls for the use of animals in laboratory experimentation regarding the coronavirus are increasing, at the same time they are prompting criticism as highly exploitive, disregarding of the animals’ welfare, and indeed unnecessary. I will pick up this complicated and troublesome issue down the road, but for now I choose to wrap up the year with this more positive report.

Researchers are harnessing the abilities of animals to help with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in a several ways that attempt to respect the animals’ well being. I focus here on two such instances: the use of dogs trained to sniff out COVID infections in humans, and research into wild bats’ immunology that might help with treatment for humans.  

Humans have long utilized the dogs’ olfactory abilities in detecting cadavers, drugs, and explosives. Dogs’ keen senses of smell are due to their possessing up to 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses compared to about six million in ours and the part of their brains that analyses and processes scents is (proportionally) 40 times greater than ours. Because of this, they also have been put to use to detect the odor signatures of disease in humans, including malaria, and some cancers, including melanoma, colorectal, lung, ovarian, and breast. (See studies here and here.)

Recently, this ability has been harnessed to sniff out people with coronavirus infections. A preliminary French study published in June, 2020, (later peer-reviewed and published in PLOS ONE), found that trained dogs were able to detect the presence of COVID-19 infection in human sweat odor. The dogs used in the study were already trained to detect explosives or cancer, or for search and rescue, and required only one to four hours to acquire the specific odor of COVID-19 in human sweat. Only rare cases of dogs catching the virus are known; still care was taken to assure the dogs were safe from infection.

In September, researchers at Finland’s Helsinki airport began a pilot program to determine if sniffer dogs’ noses might serve as a cheap, fast and effective means of screening people for the virus. The dogs were able to detect the presence of the virus within ten seconds, with the entire testing process taking less than a minute to complete. Impressively, the dogs were nearly 100% accurate, and could detect the virus even days before those tested developed symptoms. According to the article, at that time Australia, France, Germany, Britain and Dubai were working on similar projects, and those efforts have since expanded. By early December, Helsinki’s COVID-19 sniffer dogs had received Special Hero Dog Awards from the Finnish Kennel Club, noting that “the work of the COVID-19 sniffer dogs makes a real positive difference in terms of people’s wellbeing.”

With this type of work, the training is reward-based, and requires only the need for the dogs to alert their trainers—by barking, pawing, sitting or lying down—to odors they already smell naturally. This work certainly benefits humans. This type of detection is noninvasive and with potentially fewer side effects than other diagnostic means. It seems to benefit the dogs as well in that they seem to enjoy the work. Although some might consider this type of work for dogs exploitive, I speak from experience with several working-breed rescue dogs who considered “find” a most enjoyable action; for them it was certainly more play than work. Rather than scents, we used words for toys, prompting one of my rescue companions, Boris, to learn not only verbs (“rope toy,” Wubba,” “ball”), but also adjectives (the “NEW Wubba”; the “SQUEAKY” Wubba”)—in order to bring the right toy for praise during our play time. 

On another front, researcher Brian Bird, associate director at the One Health Institute, has been studying how bats’ unique immune systems might shed light on human coronavirus immunity. This research is accomplished by capturing wild-living bats with as little disruption as possible, and releasing them after weighing, measuring, and taking saliva and fecal samples from them. The project has helped identify emerging infections, and how bats can harbor viruses—including coronaviruses—without succumbing to them or even becoming seriously ill. 

What might be the mechanism that allows this? Virologist Arinjay Banerjee, postdoctoral researcher at McMaster University in Canada, notes that “the majority of symptoms caused by highly pathogenic coronaviruses like SARS or SARS-CoV-2 in humans is driven by the over-inflammation in the body.” Bats don’t develop this overblown reaction; it seems they somehow suppress the inflammation the viruses cause in humans. They do this by producing interferon molecules, which create a chain reaction that interferes with the virus’ actual reproduction. Type-I interferons defend all mammals from viruses, but bats have many more interferon-producing genes than humans. Also, human genetic mutations and autoimmune conditions in a subgroup of those most severely hit by COVID-19 show the patients lack type-1 interferon, with auto-antibodies quelling the interferons positive actions.

Further research into how bats and other wild animals interfere with viral infections should prove incredibly useful in understanding how humans might formulate ways of doing the same—without the collateral damage caused by animal testing that considers its subjects as fungible. More broadly, the ways in which humans are respectfully harnessing the natural abilities of animals—here, dogs and bats—to assist with pandemic solutions point to viable models that take into account both our partnerships and connectedness with other animals.

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