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Could dogs detect coronavirus in humans? Your COVID-19 questions answered

We're answering your questions about the pandemic. Send yours to COVID@cbc.ca and we’ll answer as many as we can. We’ll publish a selection of answers every weekday online, and also put some questions to the experts during The National and on CBC News Network.

From meat shortages to seasonal allergies, here's what you’re asking us today

A dog undergoes training to detect cancerous tissue at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center in Philadelphia, in August 2013. Researchers hope dogs might also be able to help sniff out COVID-19. (Matt Rourke/Associated Press)

We're answering your questions about the pandemic. Send yours to COVID@cbc.ca, and we'll answer as many as we can. We'll publish a selection of answers every weekday online and also put some questions to the experts during The National and on CBC News Network. So far, we've received more than 37,000 emails from all corners of the country. 

Can dogs be trained to test COVID-19?

Dogs have long been used to help detect diseases, like cancer and Parkinson's disease, through scent. Richard A. wonders if they can be trained to detect COVID-19.

There's no definitive answer, but university researchers are studying whether it's possible.

The veterinary school at the University of Pennsylvania is trying to train dogs to sniff out COVID-19 by detecting low concentrations of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), found in human saliva, blood, urine and on breath. 

"The potential impact of these dogs and their capacity to detect COVID-19 could be substantial," said Dr. Cynthia Otto, director of Penn Vet Working Dog Center in a news release.

"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."

It's hoped the dogs will help quickly test large groups of people — including asymptomatic carriers of the virus, and especially in environments like office buildings and hospitals. 

The centre says the dogs could be ready for preliminary screening of humans as early as July. 

No such study has been announced in Canada. But Glenn Ferguson, director of Cancer Dogs — an organization that uses canines to detect cancer — says past successes show how helpful this could be to curb the spread of COVID-19.

"One of the key things about training dogs to detect [COVID-19] is how quickly you can deploy them," Ferguson said. "Dogs may be the easiest and quickest way to get some level of classification happening."

Ferguson says he thinks dogs could be trained to detect the VOCs for COVID-19 in the same way he trains dogs to detect cancer, and that the training could be done quickly. 

"I'm talking about training dogs to do this in a week," he said. "You could train dozens of dogs a day at the same place."

"I think, yes, it should be done, even if it's just from an experimental point of view and you don't use the dogs. This won't be the last and only outbreak."

The research is still in its early stages, and more work is needed to determine whether dogs can accurately detect COVID-19. 

 Are we going to run out of meat?

Meat-packing plants have been at the centre of some of Canada's largest COVID-19 outbreaks, killing and sickening employees and forcing some sites to close. David E. asks, is our meat supply chain at risk?  

The problem isn't having enough meat, but rather, having enough staff to process it.

"There's plenty of stock for everyone," said Sylvain Charlebois, a professor at Dalhousie University with expertise in food distribution, security and safety.

"The biggest problem, as far as I'm concerned, are the backlogs," caused by the closures, he said. 

Last week, the president of the Canadian Cattlemen's Association, Bob Lowe, told a Commons committee he estimates "between 6,000 and 9,000 head of cattle of day" are being backed up in Canada's beef supply. 

But those disruptions have had little or no effect on price, says Charlebois.

Meat prices started going up in January and have now stabilized, he says. "We're not expecting prices to go higher until the fall." 

Demand is also down because people aren't going out as much. 

"We've been at home since March. That's putting a lot less pressure on the market," he said. 

In addition, McDonald's Canada said it will import its beef from the U.S. to help alleviate pressure on the Canadian supply.

Many of you have also asked if you should be concerned about the virus living on meat. You can read more about it here.

Cargill Canada is shutting down a Quebec meat-processing plant over concerns for worker safety after a COVID-19 outbreak in the cramped workplace. The move follows Canada's biggest COVID-19 outbreak at another Cargill plant in Alberta. 1:58

Should people with seasonal allergies stay home from work? 

Because some COVID-19 symptoms are similar to those of seasonal allergies, Beatrice asks if allergy sufferers should stay home from work, rather than risk catching the coronavirus and not realize it? 

"You should be OK," according to Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious disease physician at University of Alberta, provided you have "the classic [allergy] symptoms" like itchy eyes. 

"Seasonal allergies are often accompanied by a lot of itching." 

But take note, said Saxinger, whether those symptoms respond to antihistamine medication. If they don't, they might be a sign of something more serious.

If there's any doubt, an "excess of caution, right now, is reasonable," she said.

If your symptoms start to transition to those of COVID-19 — a dry cough, for example — "it's not a bad idea to pay attention to who you've been around and where you've been, to help with contact tracing," she said. 

Infectious disease specialist, Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti, who suffers from seasonal allergies himself, agrees that if you start developing symptoms that are different from those you're used to, you should stay home from work and go to a COVID-19 assessment centre to get tested. 

We're also answering your questions every night on The National. Last night, you asked our medical expert: Why aren't masks mandatory? Watch below:

Doctors answer viewer questions about the COVID-19 pandemic, including why masks aren't mandatory for everyone. 2:29

Tuesday we answered questions about disinfecting wipes and blood type susceptibility

Keep your questions coming by emailing us at COVID@cbc.ca

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