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Buzzing corona test: bees can detect Covid-19

It is already known that dogs can sniff out the coronavirus. But busy little bees can also detect the virus in people’s breath. Dutch researchers have discovered this. But how do you implement such a bee test – and without danger for humans and animals?

It can take weeks or months for dogs to reliably sniff out the coronavirus. Another animal is much faster at learning – and much smaller: bees can detect the corona virus in the air they breathe. Is the flying corona test on the way? A start-up is working on it. But there are unanswered questions.

Flying test: Bees recognize the “scent” of Covid-19

It’s a press release that makes people sit up and take notice: Researchers at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, together with a start-up, are developing a corona test with bees. The bees can learn to recognize the corona virus in the air they breathe – and apparently they can be trained to do so within a few minutes. This has already worked with the breath of infected minks. The concept is likely to be transferable to humans.

It works like this: In their tests, the researchers had given the bees sugar water in a conditioning procedure and at the same time exposed them to the breath scent of minks infected with the Sars-CoV-2 coronavirus.

Tongue out: how bees reveal the presence of coronaviruses

The interesting thing: To ingest the sugar water, bees have to stick out their tongues. Conditioned to the breath of the infected mink, they were able to stick out their tongues in anticipation of more sugar water just by sniffing the breath of the infected animals.

That’s exactly what the startup Insectsense now wants to exploit: According to the press release, the company has already developed a prototype conditioning machine for this purpose. This machine is intended to train bees to recognize the coronavirus in the air they breathe. For the test itself, another apparatus is to be developed in which a bee is inserted. Their reaction is then to be measured there – to human breath.

What about animal welfare? Alternative planned

The human being to be tested should have no contact with the bee. However, the question of animal welfare remains open: What should such an apparatus look like for the bee? Can it move freely or will it be held there? How large should this apparatus be?

In order to prevent this problem from arising in the long term, the start-up and researchers are simultaneously working on another variant of the test procedure, for which the animals are not even needed. Based on the findings to date, they want to create a biochip that is based on the olfactory receptors of insects. The whole thing is to be combined with machine learning models.

Similar sensor project at Nasa

Similar projects are underway by other groups. Nasa, for example, is working on a so-called “E-Nose.” The device is to contain nanosensors and can be coupled to smartphones via Bluetooth. To test it, people will simply blow into the E-Nose, which will then measure volatile organic compounds in the air they breathe that indicate infection with the coronavirus.

In the U.S., by the way, animal pandemic help is being used thanks to corona-sniffing dogs to detect superspreaders at sporting events, for example. However, it will probably be some time before animals are able to help in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic in this country. Until then, it’s still a matter of stick tests, gargle tests, spit tests – and now also lollipop tests for the little ones.

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