Dogs to train as COVID-19 detectors

The world faces a global pandemic, and man’s best friend is joining the fight against infection. Dogs are being trained to sniff and detect coronavirus infections in humans before the onset of symptoms, to offer a speedy screening method for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Asher, one of the medical detection dogs, in training. Image credit: BexArts

In recent weeks, we have all heard of the importance of a successful test, track and trace system to be implemented in the UK as lockdown restrictions are eased. Currently in the UK, coronavirus testing is available for anyone over the age of 5 displaying symptoms. However, with a contagious incubation period of up to 14 days, an early detection system could offer an invaluable opportunity to prevent unnecessary spreading by isolating carriers as early as possible. This is where our canine friends come in, as potential front-line teammates.

With £500,000 of UK government funding, a 3-month trial is being led by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, alongside the charity Medical Detection Dogs, and Durham University. It is already known to scientists that respiratory diseases like COVID-19 can change body odour. Therefore, in the first phase of the trial, breath and body odour samples collected from both infected and non-infected patients in London hospitals are to be used to train the dogs to identify infected patients. The samples come from various sources, including face masks worn by the patients. Following this, the second phase will see the dogs in live situations.

Norman, Digby, Storm, Star, Jasper and Asher are the six specialist dogs taking part in the trial. They are a mix of Labradors and Cocker Spaniels whom Medical Detection Dogs estimate it will take as little as 6-8 weeks to train. 10 years of research by the charity has shown that dogs are able to sniff out the odour of a disease at the equivalent dilution of one teaspoon of sugar in two Olympic-sized swimming pools. If the trial is successful, it is estimated that these canine super detectors could screen 250 people per hour, a commendable feat for these pets, with great potential benefit for public health. Detection dogs on points of entry, and at testing centres alongside swab testing, could be a crucial component of the government’s efforts to control the infection as lockdown restrictions are eased.

This is not the first time our canine friends have helped medicine. Previously, dogs have successfully been trained to detect odours associated with several diseases, including certain cancers, malaria, and Parkinson’s disease. Promising work has already begun at a veterinary school in Maisons-Alfort, France, where German Shepherds have been trained to sniff out the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 with a 95% success rate. There is therefore no surprise in the optimism for this research to provide speedy, economical, and effective screening for coronavirus.

Following this trial, Medical Detection Dogs hope that they can work with other agencies to train more dogs to support the existing testing infrastructure across the country. In getting back to a new ‘normal’, specialist pups could be paramount.

Written by Sarah Barber and edited by Ailie McWhinnie.

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