Could dogs help detect COVID-19 in humans?

Scientists in the U.S. and Britain are looking at dogs for answers.

May 19, 2020, 11:43 AM

Dogs have a remarkable sense of smell and scientists are studying whether our canine friends could help identify people infected with the novel coronavirus.

Medical Detection Dogs, a British charity, has already succeeded in training dogs to detect the odor of malaria, cancer and Parkinson's disease. Now it's training dogs to spot the odor of COVID-19.

The hope is that these dogs can reliably identify the presence of coronavirus. If successful, these sniffer dogs could be deployed at airports across the globe.

The researchers say they are confident that every disease carries a distinct scent, recognizable to a dog's keen sense of smell. Claire Guest, the CEO and founder of Medical Detection Dogs, said six dogs -- two yellow Labradors, one white Labradoodle and three cocker spaniels -- will be the first trainees. The four-legged snoopers, called “the super six,” are led by Asher, a 5-year-old cocker spaniel and an experienced professional in his field.

Guest said it will take four to six weeks to train the first team of dogs, but once they're ready, one dog will be able to screen up to 250 people per hour for coronavirus.

The canine identification would then be confirmed by a precise coronavirus lab test. Eventually teams of trained dogs will be able to screen “up to 1,000 people per hour with a speedy, non-invasive diagnosis that will help fight the pandemic," Guest said.

PHOTO: Trials for specially-trained 'covid dogs', that may be able to detect coronavirus in humans, even before symptoms appear, are set to begin as part of new research.
Trials for specially-trained 'covid dogs', that may be able to detect coronavirus in humans, even before symptoms appear, are set to begin to establish if they can be used as a new non-invasive, early warning measure to detect coronavirus in the future. World-leading researchers at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) will carry out the first phase of a trial in collaboration with the charity Medical Detection Dogs and Durham University.

But scientists first need to confirm that dogs can indeed sniff out COVID-19 infection. The U.K. government has devoted $605,000 in resources to the canine research program.

James Logan, who heads up the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine's department of disease control, said COVID-19 samples will be taken from face masks of infected people, placed on nylon socks treated with UV rays and sterilized to protect the dogs and their trainers. Logan hopes to have samples ready within weeks.

Dogs “can detect other diseases with great accuracy," he said. "If we find out that [the virus] does have an odor, we are confident dogs will be able to detect it ... and this could have a profound impact on our response to COVID-19.”

In late April, the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine launched a similar pilot training program with eight dogs.

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