Tech titans like Apple, Google and Facebook are about to get low-tech competition to help detect the novel coronavirus. Labradors and Cocker Spaniels are being trained to sniff out COVID-19. Dogs have up to 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses — compared to about six million in humans — enablings them to detect COVID-19 on a person even if they’re asymptomatic.
Medical detection dogs, wearable wristbands, thermal scanners and phone apps are part of a myriad of measures being designed to help people feel more secure about leaving their homes, getting back to work and begin travelling again. Warren Olney talks with Dr. Claire Guest, co-founder of Medical Detection Dogs in the UK; and Amy Webb, futurist and adjunct professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business.
The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.
Warren Olney: To control COVID-19, might we see the adoption of something extraordinarily intrusive by American standards?
Amy Webb: “We live in a very litigious society, but no employer wants to get sued if their employee gets sick. So in order for that to happen, the employer needs real-time knowledge of every employee's health situation. And because it takes a while for the virus to present symptoms, we're either going to have to have some kind of scanning and scoring system for each person, based on your digital behaviors, and if there are any test results. Or we're going to have to have a much faster test, and it's going to have to be comprehensive and available. We're going to have to be tested every single day as we wait for a vaccine.
If those two scenarios are what kickstarts our economy and gets us all back to work, what does that tell us? It tells us that privacy goes away and that privacy is dead as we know it. In the midst of this pandemic, digital privacy and a functioning economy are unfortunately at odds with each other.”
Is there a danger that we'll go too far, and create tracking instruments that can be used in a dangerous way?
Amy Webb: “That's the money question. So pre-pandemic, all of the big tech companies were investing heavily in the future of diagnostics and health care. Amazon opened up its own vertically integrated health system back in September just for Seattle-based employees.
For example, there's a toilet that Amazon partnered on and is Alexa-powered. You may say, ‘Who needs to go to the bathroom to talk to a toilet?; But stop and think about what's really happening. What does this imply? It implies that there are sensors being built into our everyday appliances and everyday objects that we wear with the probable goal of ongoing data collection. So every time you go to the bathroom, there's a urinalysis done and you'll get your protein levels, your sugar level. If any of those are off, you have an indication that maybe something is wrong versus waiting around to show some kind of a symptom. This was all in the works before … the pandemic.
So now we're in the midst of a pandemic and regulations are being relaxed. We're focused on the private sector to help get us out of this mess.If you were to go to the federal government and say, ‘Hey, I bought a talking Alexa toilet for my bathroom that's collecting data on me, which regulatory agency oversees something like that?’ The answer is nobody knows.
… I've asked: Is it the FDA? Well, as long as the toilet isn't giving you a diagnosis, but rather just showing you data, then probably not. Is it FCC? Well, the toilet’s probably connected to the internet so technically it could be, but there's no department for that.
This is where we're going to have problems down the road. The fact is that we just do not have people in the White House right now who are thinking far ahead. They are not focused on long-term preparedness. We have a president more focused on platitudes than preparing for what comes next. So this is a huge challenge and all of us should be thinking about it right now.”
You ran the first program to train dogs to identify cancer. Tell us about that.
Claire Guest: “I worked on cancer … in 2004. So going back 15 years, and we were able to train dogs to reliably detect bladder cancer from a urine sample. Since that time, we have grown and developed a huge evidence base in the detection of disease through volatiles. Volatiles are those smelly molecules like from a nice perfume or aftershave. … What we've discovered is that diseases change your body's odor volatiles, and the dogs with that incredible sense of smell can be trained to identify them.”
Are some dogs better at tracking than others?
Claire Guest: “Absolutely. … In the UK, we use a lot of also working gun dog breeds, and we often use the dogs that end up in our rescue centers because they're sort of hyperactive dogs. All our dogs live with volunteers in the area, so we have a no-kennel policy. They come into work in the day, go home in the evening, put their feet up and curl up on the sofa. This means that not only are they dogs who love to use their nose, but they're actually peopley [sic] dogs as well. So they’re very, very suitable for working in environments where they're going to be with the public.”
Tell us about the extraordinary ability of dogs to smell things.
Claire Guest: “Until we know how smelly COVID-19 is, we won't know precisely how close the dogs are going to have to be to an individual to find it. But they are trained on a small piece of sock the size of a 50 pence piece. A dog has 350 million sensory receptors in his nose, and us [sic] humans have five million.When we’ve worked with dogs on other diseases, we've shown that they can go down to parts per trillion. If you can imagine smelling a teaspoon of sugar in a cup of tea, one of our detector dogs could detect a teaspoon of sugar in the volume of water that can be held in the two Olympic sized swimming pools. So evolution has made these dogs into absolutely super biosensors, the best biosensors on the planet.”