Real dogs are being trained to sniff out COVID-19 infection, robotic dogs are enforcing social distancing requirements, and a new coronavirus test based on the gene-editing technology CRISPR has been approved for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Here’s our weekly roundup of encouraging news from the fight against the coronavirus.
What is it? At the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine, some very good boys and girls are getting ready to join the fight against the coronavirus: Researchers are training dogs to sniff out COVID-19 infection.
Why does it matter? Because people with COVID-19 sometimes don’t present symptoms of infection — or carry the infection prior to developing symptoms — dogs could be a way to detect infection when it’s otherwise elusive. According to Penn Vet, the pups could be particularly useful in settings like “hospital or business environments where testing is most challenging.”
How does it work? Our canine friends famously have 300 million smell receptors, compared to humans’ 6 million, and an initial group of eight dogs is being trained by researchers on saliva and urine samples from patients with COVID-19 infection and without it. Penn Vet professor Cynthia Otto said, “Scent detection dogs can accurately detect low concentrations of volatile organic compounds, otherwise known as VOCs, associated with various diseases such as ovarian cancer, bacterial infections, and nasal tumors. These VOCs are present in human blood, saliva, urine or breath. The potential impact of these dogs and their capacity to detect COVID-19 could be substantial. This study will harness the dog’s extraordinary ability to support the nation’s COVID-19 surveillance systems, with the goal of reducing community spread.”
What is it? Flesh-and-blood dogs may have 300 million scent receptors, but they need to stop every so often for a drink of water and a nap and maybe a scratch behind the ears — unlike Spot, the famous doglike robot from Boston Dynamics, which has also been enlisted in the COVID campaign.
Why does it matter? In a blog post, Boston Dynamics said it started fielding requests in early March — hospitals wanted to know if the robot could help prevent healthcare workers from getting infected with the coronavirus. The company deployed Spot to Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital to be used as a “remote telemedicine platform, allowing healthcare providers to remotely triage patients.” Boston Robotics is also working with other robot manufacturers to make their COVID-related applications widely available — Spot is not specifically required.
How does it work? Future applications for a robotic healthcare assistant could include remote measurement of things like body temperature and pulse rate, and Boston Robotics says it’s also looking into the possibility of Spot being used to disinfect surfaces via an ultraviolet light attached to its back. In Singapore, public health officials have yet another idea: They’re using Spot — which is semiautonomous and can walk over uneven terrain — to wander around parks and make sure people aren’t getting too close to one another. If they do? Spot doesn’t bark, but it does have a message for them, according to the Los Angeles Times: “Let’s keep Singapore healthy. For your own safety, and for those around you, please stand at least one meter apart. Thank you.”
What is it? Minding the scope and scale of the COVID-19 crisis, economists Pierre Azoulay and Benjamin Jones — of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Northwestern University, respectively —have called for an “innovative push” to be coordinated by a federal COVID-19 Defense Research Committee.
Why does it matter? Because the coronavirus is new and still relatively unknown, the economists argue, the response to it requires all sorts of novel approaches: not just a new vaccine and therapies but “new tests, new clinical knowledge, and new data for epidemiological models,” according to a news release from MIT. It notes that while many private companies and governments are already answering that call, Azoulay and Jones propose a “central agency funding a wide array of COVID-19 research projects, with unusual speed and a repository of research knowledge.” They described the idea in a new op-ed in Science.
How does it work? Down to its name, the COVID-19 Defense Research Committee is meant to evoke the National Defense Research Committee that coordinated innovations the U.S. used in World War II. (The NDRC funded research into the development of, for instance, radar.) Azoulay said that the committee could fund a wide array of projects with the recognition that few would be ultimately successful: “It’s not just spending more money, it’s how you’re going to spend it. There is a real chance we’re going to pile too much money too early into too narrow a set of approaches. There needs to be an impetus from above to force this exploration of parallel paths.”
What is it? For the first time, the Food and Drug Administration has authorized a tool based on the gene-editing technology CRISPR for used in patients: It’s a test for COVID-19 infection that returns results in about an hour.
Why does it matter? Public health officials have been calling for ramped-up testing to track the spread of the coronavirus and identify hot spots, but there have been some drawbacks with the approaches developed so far, as noted by The Verge: One available method of testing, called polymerase chain reaction, is slow and requires specialized equipment; a new test developed by Abbott works only on Abbott’s platform. CRISPR-based testing requires only basic lab equipment and is relatively quick.
How does it work? The CRISPR-based test, developed by Massachusetts-based Sherlock Biosciences and granted emergency use authorization by the FDA, works by “programming” a CRISPR molecule to detect the genetic signature for SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes COVID-19 — from nose, mouth or throat swabs, or samples taken from fluid in the lungs. “When the signature is found,” the company explains in a press release, “the CRISPR enzyme is activated and releases a detectable signal.”
What is it? With the help of a powerful supercomputer, researchers at Germany’s Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz identified several drugs — normally used to treat hepatitis C infection — that could work against COVID-19.
Why does it matter? As researchers search for therapies for COVID-19, they’ve been poring over already approved drugs. Scientists at Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, for instance, have also used a supercomputer — in this case Summit, the world’s most powerful computer — to run simulations in hopes of identifying treatments.
How does it work? Using the MOGON II supercomputer — which made some 30 billion calculations in a span of two months — the German researchers focused on finding drugs that might bind with the coronavirus’ infamous spike protein and prevent it from infecting human cells or multiplying in the body. “This computer simulation method is known as molecular docking and it has been recognized and used for years. It is much faster and less expensive than lab experiments,” said Thomas Efferth, lead author of a study published on the World Health Organization website (PDF). “It is fantastic news that we have found a number of approved hepatitis C drugs as promising candidates for treatment.”