Buffy the virus detector: COVID-19-sniffing dog on staff at Florida hospital
By CHRISTOPHER SPATA | Tampa Bay Times | Published: April 29, 2021
Stars and Stripes is making stories on the coronavirus pandemic available free of charge. See more staff and wire stories here. Sign up for our daily coronavirus newsletter here. Please support our journalism with a subscription.
(Tribune News Service) — Three days a week, Buffy greets visitors at the entrance to
Few decline the offer when they see the yellow Labrador retriever with a wagging tail. People generally don’t love going to a hospital, said CEO
Buffy was trained by
The original plan for 2020 was to train dogs to detect heightened levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. That could let the dogs know when to wake up military veterans suffering night terrors or get them out of a stressful situation before a panic attack strikes.
The coronavirus pandemic derailed that plan but opened the door to another. Small, early studies on dogs trained to detect COVID-19 in
The four dogs selected were not the top of their class. In fact, they’d flunked out of Southeastern’s guide dog training.
“They all had small animal distraction, or prey drive, and they were a little high-energy,” the dogs’ trainer
Training dogs to detect the virus required actual virus samples. For that they turned to Meade, the hospital CEO, who has served on Southeastern Guide Dogs’ board for years.
Saliva samples were collected from
They needed enough samples to ensure the dogs were able to filter out various other elements.
“If someone ate a chicken sandwich, or smoked a cigarette, or had Doublemint gum, those odors would be in the sample, too,” Parrow said. “If (the dogs) were trained on sample one, with Doublemint gum in it, and I’d bring out sample two, with coffee in it, they would learn what the samples had in common — the virus — and alert to that, not coffee or Doublemint gum.”
They trained for three months. At the end, Buffy was 95% accurate at detecting the virus samples. The glaring question then, Parrow said, was whether the dogs would be able to switch from inactive virus samples in training to live infections in the field.
Buffy was working at the hospital for a few weeks before it happened.
Someone arrived at the entrance. As part of the screening process every visitor goes through, someone took their temperature and asked them questions about symptoms. They did not have any.
Buffy pointed her snoot at the person’s feet and sniffed. She lay down next to them — her signal for detecting the virus. It was the first time she’d done that.
The person was handed an information sheet and escorted to take a rapid test. It came back positive for COVID-19.
No one was happy to hear that someone had the virus, but Parrow felt relief. Buffy, it appeared, could detect a live infection.
While scientists agree more research is needed, COVID-19-detecting dogs could become more commonplace. The
Meade said he believes
Three of the four dogs
Buffy now lives with Meade when she isn’t working at the hospital. A working dog has to practice, so he hides little canisters of inactive virus around the house for her to sniff out.