Columbus company Bio-Detection K9 uses man's best friend to detect COVID-19

Cynthia Bent Findlay
For Columbus CEO
A Bio-Detection K9 team member at work.

What if instead of a swab invading your sinus, a dog sniffed you to see if you had COVID-19?

Bio-Detection K9 may make that a reality. The Columbus business already uses dogs to detect agricultural diseases, and it just received a $5 million investment from French biotech firm Neovacs S.A. to take its services to a broader market.

Wade Morrell, CEO and owner of BDK9 Holdings, got his start at Priority One Canine, a tech-assisted canine protection firm based in Columbus.

Priority One attained global reach after competing in 2014 on Shark Tank with its drones, which help extend a canine crew’s reach by alerting clients’ dogs to perimeter breaches on large properties.

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In September, Morrell and a client investor purchased Bio-Detection K9 with an eye on applying Morrell’s model of tech-assisted canines to biodetection.

Bio-Detection K9 was founded in Alabama in 2011 with dogs able to detect citrus canker in orange groves and diseases in tomatoes and stone fruit trees. The business has won $14 million in U.S. Department of Agriculture contracts.

Getting dogs to sniff out COVID-19

Morrell is ready to launch an expansion of the dogs’ reach using overhead surveillance of farms. Meanwhile, BDK9’s lead scientist found a way to isolate COVID-19 proteins and train dogs to sniff them out on samples–and people.

The process is simple. Test subjects line up 6 feet apart, each holding a mask they’ve worn in their left hand. The dog gives a quick sniff to each and sits down next to anyone they sense as positive.

“For a PCR test, the cost is $40 to $120. Our dogs can run a group of people in 30 seconds for $2 per person,” Morrell says. From there, he says, positives are usually referred for PCR testing.

Researchers have published studies indicating canines detect COVID with an accuracy of around 94 percent–reflecting BDK9’s own double blind studies in actual people.

“To us, a dog is one of most accurate and proficient sensors to date,” Morrell says.

BDK9 is working to commercialize that potential. The company has worked with performers, including singer-songwriter Eric Church, to test backstage personnel at concerts, and with NASCAR testing drivers and crews at races.

Morrell says the company can scale quickly, especially given the investment from Neovacs S.A., which is focused on the human disease detection research. It takes only 10 weeks to train a dog to detect a specific odor, and the company currently has 15 dogs in training.

BDK9, which relocated to Columbus this fall and is working on finalizing a Zanesville facility, is also working on sepsis detection in health care settings. Other canine research indicates dogs may be able to screen for cancer in humans.

Cynthia Bent Findlay is a freelance writer.

Bio-Detection K9

1200 South Pointe Drive, Zanesville 43071

Business: Canine disease detection

CEO: Wade Morrell

Employees: 17

Investment to date: At least $19 million