Dr. Dean Chittock: Pandemic has driven homegrown health-care innovation. How do we maintain the momentum?  

Opinion: One example: VCH partnered with Health Canada to explore the feasibility of training canines to detect COVID-19 and find a fast, non-invasive and accurate approach to detecting the virus

Dr. Dean Chittock 3 minute read January 5, 2022

Detection dog Finn trains with a scent stand to detect the smell of COVID-19. Jason Payne / PNG

There’s nothing quite like adversity to ignite creative problem solving and foster resilience, and the COVID-19 pandemic is no exception.

The past 21 months have taken a devastating toll on individuals, families and communities around the world. Yet, the pandemic has also spurred tremendous innovation in the health-care sector as medical professionals, scientists, governments, businesses and citizens unite to slow the spread of COVID-19.

While some innovations — such as COVID vaccines — have household recognition, there are other homegrown innovations that are changing the trajectory of infection prevention during the pandemic and beyond.
Standout changes during the pandemic have included physical distancing and increased precautions in public spaces. While necessary steps, these measures have had a significant impact on our communities.

As we chart out a new normal, Vancouver Coastal Health has been working closely with others to enhance public health and restore public confidence in the safety of our shared spaces.

For example, VCH has joined with Teck Resources Limited, TransLink and the Toronto Transit Commission on a pilot to test copper’s effectiveness on high-touch transit surfaces. Phase I of the project confirmed copper could kill 99.9 per cent of bacteria on transit surfaces, consistent with VCH’s previous findings in laboratory and hospital settings. Phase II, which started in September, further explores how copper — a visible, tangible infection prevention measure — can enhance public safety.

This collaboration between public and private sectors advances health-care innovation by providing funding and expanding opportunities for real world trials and applications.

At the onset of the pandemic, there was increased global demand for personal protective equipment, or PPE, and severely disrupted supply chains. B.C. faced challenges acquiring PPE, particularly N95 respirators, due to limited global supplies and protracted waiting times for testing and validating of new PPE at labs in North America.

To address this, VCH established Western Canada’s first accredited PPE testing lab in just a few short months, working with the B.C. Ministry of Health, Lions Gate Hospital Foundation, VGH & UBC Hospital Foundation and the Provincial Health Services Authority to ensure the new PPE supplies met Canadian and international standards. This lab is also a sustainable resource with economic benefits for the province and country, as Canadian manufacturers can now use this service to evaluate and validate PPE products and materials, fostering the local industry and bolstering the domestic PPE supply.

Essential to this initiative was leadership that values innovation and enables agility in organizational structure and processes.

In 2016, VCH became the first health-care organization in the world to use C. difficile-detecting dogs to reduce infection in the health-care environment. This summer, VCH joined Health Canada to explore the feasibility of training these super sniffers to detect COVID-19 and find a fast, non-invasive and accurate approach to detecting the virus.

VCH was uniquely positioned to pivot this program to meet pandemic needs, with its extensive experience and team of medical professionals, dog handlers and infection prevention practitioners. Recently, three dogs were externally validated for COVID-19 scent detection with 100 per cent sensitivity and 93 per cent specificity in a laboratory setting.

VCH’s ongoing research aims to develop a scalable dog training program to support healthy communities in the long term, with possible applications including COVID-19 screening in health-care facilities and community settings.

As we move through another phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, a few things are clear. Each of these innovations was made possible through a shared vision of making our communities safer and healthier.

We must continue to maximize public and private partnerships to develop a self-sustaining health ecosystem in B.C. We also need health-care leaders to champion innovation, especially during times of uncertainty.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, we need to create sustainable solutions that can be applied now and evolved as we move beyond the pandemic.

Dr. Dean Chittock is vice-president, medicine, quality and safety at Vancouver Coastal Health.


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