Researchers will start a new trial to see if specially-trained ‘COVID dogs’ could be able to detect coronavirus (COVID-19) in humans — even before any symptoms appear.
Dogs have an uncanny sense of smell. It’s not just goodies or cheese sandwiches that they can smell — their sense of smell is so refined that they can smell the odor of disease at the equivalent dilution of one teaspoon of sugar in 2 Olympic-sized swimming pools of water.
Now, a new British study will assess whether dogs can also detect COVID-19. Medical Detection Dogs, an organization known for research into canine olfactory diagnostics, will train dogs to detect the odor of disease with the aim of developing faster, more efficient and less invasive diagnostics.
They’re pretty confident about it too.
“We believe that dogs have the potential to detect the virus COVID–19. Medical Detection Dogs has always adopted a rigorous scientific approach to its work and the results of its work have been published in a number of peer-reviewed research papers. These results have further supported our shared belief that diseases have their own unique odour that dogs have the ability to detect.
In principle, we are sure that dogs have the potential to detect COVID-19.”
So far, not much is known about the possibility of doing this. Some respiratory viruses are known to cause changes in body odor, so Professor James Logan, lead researcher for the work, is hoping that this could also be the case with COVID-19.
“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,” says Logan.
The plan is to train the dogs to recognize the changes in odor produced by COVID-19, and then confirm the dogs’ diagnosis with a medical test. In the first stage, samples will be taken from people known to be infected with the virus, and after training, the dogs will move on to real-life tests. It’s the same approach that has been done with cancer and other types of conditions, except the whole process will be greatly accelerated.
According to the researchers, they hope to have the first results within 8-10 weeks — and we’re already 2 weeks into the trial. The basic training with the dogs has started.
The initial phase will see six bio-detection dogs, and if everything goes right, a new set of dogs will be trained afterward.
If the research is successful, COVID-19 detection dogs could be used in public places such as airports or restaurants, helping prevent a second wave of infections. The team estimates that every dog can screen approximately 250 people per hour.
Dr. Claire Guest, co-founder and CEO of Medical Detection Dogs, said:
“We have already demonstrated our expertise in canine disease detection by successfully training dogs to detect diseases like cancer, Parkinson’s and malaria, and we apply that same science to train life-saving Medical Alert Assistance Dogs to detect odour changes in individuals caused by their health condition.”
The welfare of the dogs is also prioritized. The dogs will only be trained with non-infectious samples and will not need to make contact with individuals for screening. The dogs won’t touch individuals and will only sniff the air around them. The dogs are only be permitted to be touched by the handler, and there is only a very low risk of spread of the virus from the dog to their handler. According to the described methodology, dogs can’t pass on the virus or pick it up themselves.
“We take the welfare of our Medical Detection Dogs extremely seriously,” writes the organization. “From the moment they come to us as puppies we ensure the highest standards of care for our dogs. We have a strict no kennel policy and all our dogs live in the homes of our staff or fantastic local volunteers where they are loved and cared for as part of the family.”