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“COVID Dogs” in Training to Detect Virus

U.K. researchers launch trial to find if “Covid Dogs” can detect coronavirus before symptoms appear

By: Michelle Morton

Last Updated:

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Photos U.K. Department of Health and Social Care

Can specially-trained dogs sniff out COVID-19 in humans before symptoms appear? That’s what researchers in the United Kingdom want to find out.

The Department of Health and Social Care announced half a million pounds in funding for a study which will determine if dogs are able to detect the novel coronavirus in humans from odour samples, and if the canines can be used as a potential non-invasive early warning measure to detect COVID-19 and prevent it from spreading.

The first phase of the trial will be undertaken at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in collaboration with the charity Medical Detection Dogs and Durham University, according to a government press release.

Medical Detection Dogs and the universities proposed the clinical trial to the government. According to the press release, the proposal was accepted “following strong evidence that the dogs can detect other diseases in humans with a high level of accuracy.”

By harnessing Fido’s incredible sense of smell—a dog has more than 300 million scent receptors in his nose, whereas a human has only five million—Medical Detection Dogs has successfully trained canines to detect the odour of other human diseases, including cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and malaria. The breeds being used for the COVID-19 trial are a mix of Cocker Spaniels and Labrador Retrievers.

“This innovation might provide speedy results as part of our wider testing strategy,” said Minister for Innovation Lord Bethell. The government notes the dogs will only be deployed as part of its approach to battle the coronavirus if backed “by strong scientific evidence.”

In the initial phase of the trial, six bio-detection dogs will be trained to identify COVID-19 from samples collected by staff at London hospitals from patients infected with the coronavirus, and from people who are not.  

Lead Researcher of the trial, Professor James Logan at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine is hopeful: “Our previous work has shown that malaria has a distinctive odour, and with Medical Detection Dogs, we successfully trained dogs to accurately detect malaria. This, combined with the knowledge that respiratory disease can change body odour, makes us hopeful that the dogs can also detect COVID-19.

“If successful, this approach could revolutionize how we detect the virus [COVID-19], with the potential to screen high numbers of people,” he continued.  

It is hoped the dogs could potentially screen up to 250 people an hour.

Co-founder and CEO of Medical Detection Dogs Dr. Claire Guest is “sure our dogs will be able to find the odour of COVID-19 and we will then move into a second phase to test them in live situations, following which we hope to work with other agencies to train more dogs for deployment. We are incredibly proud that a dog’s nose could once again save many lives.”

Using man’s best friend to detect the coronavirus in people is also being looked at by other researchers around the world: The University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine launched a COVID-19 Canine Scent Detection Study, and on bioRxiv’s website, operated by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a preliminary report that has not been peer reviewed claims that some dogs can detect virus by smelling armpit odour.  

Last Updated:

By: Michelle Morton
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