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By Alexander Freund
In a pilot study at the University of Helsinki, dogs trained as medical diagnostic assistants were taught to recognize the previously unknown odor signature of the COVID-19 disease caused by the novel coronavirus. And they learned with astonishing success: After only a few weeks, the first dogs were able to accurately distinguish urine samples from COVID-19 patients from urine samples of healthy individuals.
"We have solid experience in training disease-related scent detection dogs. It was fantastic to see how fast the dogs took to the new smell," says DogRisk group leader Anna Hielm-Björkman. After only a short time, the animals identified the urine of people infected by the novel coronavirus, known as SARS-CoV-2, almost as reliably as a standard PCR test.
The Finnish scientists are now preparing a randomized, double-blind study in which the dogs will sniff a larger number of patient samples. Only then will the scent tests be used in clinical practice.
Important Findings for Other Teams
The very rapid and promising findings from Finland are also important for other research teams, such as those in Great Britain and France, who are training sniffer dogs to detect COVID-19.
Fellow researchers from the German Assistance Dog Center (TARSQ) have also benefited from the Finnish results.
"No one could tell us with certainty whether training with the aggressive virus is dangerous or not for humans and dogs. We wanted to gather more information first before we started training because the German virologists advised us against it — after all, so little is known about the virus so far," explains Luca Barrett from TARSQ.
Where Does the Characteristic Smell Come From?
It is still unclear which substances in urine produce the apparently characteristic COVID-19 odor. Since SARS-CoV-2 not only attacks the lungs, but also causes damage to blood vessels, kidneys and other organs, it is assumed that the patients' urine odor also changes. This is something which the dogs, with their highly sensitive olfactory organs, notice immediately.
Certain diseases appear to have a specific olfactory signature that trained dogs can sniff out with amazing accuracy, Barrett says.
"According to one study, dogs can detect breast cancer with a 93% probability, for example. And lung cancer with a 97% probability," she says.
But dogs can also identify skin cancer, colon cancer, ovarian cancer or prostate cancer very reliably, according to Barrett. "The hit rate, which was not so good in the early days of training, has risen enormously in recent years," she says.
Hit Rate Decisive
Besides cancer, the dogs can also detect Parkinson's disease. Parkinson's sufferers smell different even years before they have the disease. "That's how we came up with the idea of training dogs as an early warning system for Parkinson's," Barrett says.
Dogs are also trained to detect malaria, but the hit rate is not yet satisfactory, she says. So far, the dogs recognize seven out of 10 infected persons, which is not enough.
A high hit rate is, of course, also absolutely necessary when training for the aggressive SARS-CoV-2 pathogen, according to Barret. "We hope that the hit rate for the coronavirus is significantly higher in the fully trained dogs; after all, it would be very dangerous if COVID-19 were not detected," she says
Trained Tracking Dogs
Dogs' ability to smell is about a million times better than that of humans. Humans have about 5 million olfactory cells, compared with 125 million for dachshunds and 220 million for sheepdogs.
Dogs also inhale up to 300 times per minute in short breaths, meaning that their olfactory cells are constantly supplied with new odor particles. In addition, dogs' noses differentiate between right and left. This spatial sense of smell allows the animals to follow a trail more easily.
During the training sessions, the dogs — mostly Labrador retrievers or retrievers in general, but also cocker spaniels or sheepdog breeds — are each trained for one scent. That can be the smell of a drug or an explosive, or, as here, the olfactory signature of a specific disease.This means that one dog cannot recognize several types of cancer.
The animals are trained with containers holding samples of breath or sweat, for example. As soon as they have identified the smell they are looking for, the dogs hear a click and get a treat. They are reliably trained for the one smell on this reward principle.
Great Potential, Great Skepticism
Drug and explosive detection dogs have been used for some time. But trained medical scent detection dogs are also now working in hospitals. For example, they sniff the bodies of patients with suspected skin cancer to try and detect the disease — only with the patients' consent, of course. So these skilled snufflers are helping doctors in diagnosing diseases and detecting them early on.
However, so far there are only very few medical detection dogs. The dog owners almost always work voluntarily and the trained sniffer dogs live in normal households. There is great skepticism, especially among traditional doctors and health insurance companies, even though the first indications given by the dog have to be followed by further medical tests anyway and a lot of time and costs could be saved by early cancer detection.
Possible Coronavirus Applications
If the findings from Finland are confirmed, the sniffer dogs with their extremely sensitive sense of smell could prove to be a great help in the fight against the new coronavirus.
Luca Barrett from TARSQ can easily picture coronavirus sniffer dogs being used in situations where there is a high risk of infection. For example, people attending football matches and other major events could be checked before they are admitted.
The dogs could also be employed at airports to scan people entering a country. "When the dogs go down the queue, they can detect if someone is healthy and can enter the country. But if a person smells of COVID-19, the handler could send that person to a coronavirus testing center instead," Barrett says. That is because a second test is still needed to confirm the dog's initial sniff detection.
Barrett says dogs could also be used to search for the virus on surfaces. For example, before passengers board an aircraft, a four-legged friend could first check whether the machine is free from SARS-CoV-2. Similar measures are planned for doctors' surgeries, aged care homes or nursing homes that have had to be evacuated because of COVID-19 cases. Before these are used again, a sniffer dog could check whether the environment is "clean."
Reposted with permission from Deutsche Welle.
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By Shelly Miller
The vast majority of SARS-CoV-2 transmission occurs indoors, most of it from the inhalation of airborne particles that contain the coronavirus. The best way to prevent the virus from spreading in a home or business would be to simply keep infected people away. But this is hard to do when an estimated 40% of cases are asymptomatic and asymptomatic people can still spread the coronavirus to others.
It’s All About Fresh, Outside Air<p>The safest indoor space is one that constantly has lots of <a href="https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/how-does-outdoor-air-enter-building" target="_blank">outside air</a> replacing the stale air inside.</p><p>In commercial buildings, <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK143277/" target="_blank">outside air is usually pumped in</a> through heating, ventilating and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems. In <a href="https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/how-does-outdoor-air-enter-building" target="_blank">homes, outside air gets in</a> through open windows and doors, in addition to seeping in through various nooks and crannies.</p><p>Simply put, the more fresh, outside air inside a building, the better. Bringing in this air dilutes any contaminant in a building, whether a virus or a something else, and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1600-0668.2010.00703.x" target="_blank">reduces the exposure of anyone inside</a>. Environmental engineers like me quantify how much outside air is getting into a building using a measure called the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/jes.2013.30" target="_blank">air exchange rate</a>. This number quantifies the number of times the air inside a building gets replaced with air from outside in an hour.</p><p>While the exact rate depends on the number of people and size of the room, most experts consider roughly <a href="https://doi.org/10.1034/j.1600-0668.2002.01145.x" target="_blank">six air changes an hour</a> to be good for a 10-foot-by-10-foot room with three to four people in it. In a pandemic this should be higher, with one study from 2016 suggesting that an exchange rate of nine times per hour <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1420326X16631596" target="_blank">reduced the spread of SARS, MERS and H1N1</a> in a Hong Kong hospital.</p><p>Many buildings in the U.S., <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/ina.12403" target="_blank">especially schools</a>, do not meet recommended ventilation rates. Thankfully, it can be pretty easy to get more outside air into a building. Keeping <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/S0960-1481(99)00012-9" target="_blank">windows and doors open</a> is a good start. Putting a box fan in a window blowing out can greatly increase air exchange too. In buildings that don't have operable windows, you can change the mechanical ventilation system to increase how much air it is pumping. But in any room, the more people inside, the faster the air should be replaced.</p>
Using CO2 to Measure Air Circulation<p>So how do you know if the room you're in has enough air exchange? It's actually a pretty hard number to calculate. But there's an easy-to-measure proxy that can help. Every time you exhale, you <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/ina.12383" target="_blank">release CO2</a> into the air. Since the coronavirus is most often spread by breathing, coughing or talking, you can use <a href="https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/dd7e/b2870c38f70e5285e5118ed6f158c091f7cf.pdf" target="_blank">CO2 levels</a> to see if the room is filling up with potentially infectious exhalations. The CO2 level lets you estimate if enough fresh outside air is getting in.</p><p>Outdoors, CO2 levels are just above 400 parts per million (ppm). A well ventilated room will have around <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1600-0668.1999.00003.x" target="_blank">800 ppm of CO2</a>. Any higher than that and it is a sign the room might need more ventilation.</p><p>Last year, researchers in Taiwan reported on the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/ina.12639" target="_blank">effect of ventilation on a tuberculosis outbreak</a> at Taipei University. Many of the rooms in the school were underventilated and had CO2 levels above 3,000 ppm. When engineers improved air circulation and got CO2 levels under 600 ppm, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/ina.12639" target="_blank">the outbreak completely stopped</a>. According to the research, the increase in ventilation was responsible for 97% of the decrease in transmission.</p><p>Since the coronavirus is spread through the air, higher CO2 levels in a room likely mean there is a <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/ina.12639" target="_blank">higher chance of transmission</a> if an infected person is inside. Based on the study above, I recommend trying to keep the CO2 levels below 600 ppm. You can buy <a href="https://doi.org/10.5194/amt-7-3325-2014" target="_blank">good CO2 meters</a> for around $100 online; just make sure that they are accurate to within 50 ppm.</p>
Air Cleaners<p>If you are in a room that can't get enough outside air for dilution, consider an air cleaner, also commonly called air purifiers. These machines remove particles from the air, usually using <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cap.2005.07.013" target="_blank">a filter</a> made of tightly woven fibers. They can <a href="https://shellym80304.files.wordpress.com/2020/06/miller-leiden-et-al-1996.pdf" target="_blank">capture particles containing bacteria and viruses</a> and can help reduce disease transmission.</p><p>The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that <a href="https://www.epa.gov/coronavirus/air-cleaners-hvac-filters-and-coronavirus-covid-19" target="_blank">air cleaners can do this for the coronavirus</a>, but not all air cleaners are equal. Before you go out and buy one, there are few things to keep in mind.</p><p>The first thing to consider is <a href="https://shellym80304.files.wordpress.com/2020/06/air-cleaner-report.pdf" target="_blank">how effective an air cleaner's filter is</a>. Your best option is a cleaner that uses a high-efficiency particulate air (<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/S0021-8502(05)80214-9" target="_blank">HEPA</a>) filter, as these remove more than <a href="https://doi.org/10.1063/1.2771421" target="_blank">99.97% of all particle sizes</a>.</p><p>The second thing to consider is how powerful the cleaner is. The bigger the room – or the more people in it – the more air needs to be cleaned. I worked with some colleagues at Harvard to put together a tool to help teachers and schools determine <a href="https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1NEhk1IEdbEi_b3wa6gI_zNs8uBJjlSS-86d4b7bW098/edit#gid=1275403500" target="_blank">how powerful of an air cleaner you need for different classroom sizes</a>.</p><p>The last thing to consider is the validity of the claims made by the company producing the air cleaner.</p><p>The Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers certifies air cleaners, so the AHAM Verifide seal is a good place to start. Additionally, the California Air Resources Board has a <a href="https://ww2.arb.ca.gov/our-work/programs/air-cleaners-ozone-products/california-certified-air-cleaning-devices" target="_blank">list of air cleaners</a> that are certified as safe and effective, though not all of them use HEPA filters.</p>
Keep Air Fresh or Get Outside<p>Both the <a href="https://www.who.int/news-room/commentaries/detail/transmission-of-sars-cov-2-implications-for-infection-prevention-precautions" target="_blank">World Health Organization</a> and <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/deciding-to-go-out.html" target="_blank">U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention</a> say that poor ventilation increases the risk of transmitting the coronavirus.</p><p>If you are in control of your indoor environment, make sure you are getting enough fresh air from outside circulating into the building. A CO2 monitor can help give you a clue if there is enough ventilation, and if CO2 levels start going up, open some windows and <a href="https://www.advisory.com/daily-briefing/2020/07/17/outdoor-gathering" target="_blank">take a break outside</a>. If you can't get enough fresh air into a room, an air cleaner might be a good idea. If you do get an air cleaner, be aware that they don't remove CO2, so even though the air might be safer, CO2 levels could still be high in the room.</p><p>If you walk into a building and it feels hot, stuffy and crowded, chances are that there is not enough ventilation. Turn around and leave.</p><p>By paying attention to air circulation and filtration, improving them where you can and staying away from places where you can't, you can add another powerful tool to your anti-coronavirus toolkit.</p>
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The tiny island nation of Mauritius, known for its turquoise waters, vibrant corals and diverse ecosystem, is in the midst of an environmental catastrophe after a Japanese cargo ship struck a reef off the country's coast two weeks ago. That ship, which is still intact, has since leaked more than 1,000 metric tons of oil into the Indian Ocean. Now, a greater threat looms, as a growing crack in the ship's hull might cause the ship to split in two and release the rest of the ship's oil into the water, NPR reported.
On Friday, Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth declared a state of environmental emergency.
France has sent a military aircraft carrying pollution control equipment from the nearby island of Reunion to help mitigate the disaster. Additionally, Japan has sent a six-member team to assist as well, the BBC reported.
The teams are working to pump out the remaining oil from the ship, which was believed to be carrying 4,000 metric tons of fuel.
"We are expecting the worst," Mauritian Wildlife Foundation manager Jean Hugues Gardenne said on Monday, The Weather Channel reported. "The ship is showing really big, big cracks. We believe it will break into two at any time, at the maximum within two days. So much oil remains in the ship, so the disaster could become much worse. It's important to remove as much oil as possible. Helicopters are taking out the fuel little by little, ton by ton."
Sunil Dowarkasing, a former strategist for Greenpeace International and former member of parliament in Mauritius, told CNN that the ship contains three oil tanks. The one that ruptured has stopped leaking oil, giving disaster crews time to use a tanker and salvage teams to remove oil from the other two tanks before the ship splits.
By the end of Tuesday, the crew had removed over 1,000 metric tons of oil from the ship, NPR reported, leaving about 1,800 metric tons of oil and diesel, according to the company that owns the ship. So far the frantic efforts are paying off. Earlier today, a local police chief told BBC that there were still 700 metric tons aboard the ship.
The oil spill has already killed marine animals and turned the turquoise water black. It's also threatening the long-term viability of the country's coral reefs, lagoons and shoreline, NBC News reported.
"We are starting to see dead fish. We are starting to see animals like crabs covered in oil, we are starting to see seabirds covered in oil, including some which could not be rescued," said Vikash Tatayah, conservation director at Mauritius Wildlife Foundation, according to The Weather Channel.
While the Mauritian authorities have asked residents to leave the clean-up to officials, locals have organized to help.
"People have realized that they need to take things into their hands. We are here to protect our fauna and flora," environmental activist Ashok Subron said in an AFP story.
Reuters reported that sugar cane leaves, plastic bottles and human hair donated by locals are being sewn into makeshift booms.
Human hair absorbs oil, but not water, so scientists have long suggested it as a material to contain oil spills, Gizmodo reported. Mauritians are currently collecting as much human hair as possible to contribute to the booms, which consist of tubes and nets that float on the water to trap the oil.
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Environmentalists and ornithologists found a friend in a federal court on Tuesday when a judge struck down a Trump administration attempt to allow polluters to kill birds without repercussions through rewriting the Migratory Treaty Bird Act (MBTA).
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