Dogs to be trained to sniff out coronavirus carriers

Dogs are to be trained to try to sniff out the coronavirus before symptoms appear in humans, under trials launched with £500,000 of government funding.

Dogs have already been successfully trained to detect the odour of certain cancers, malaria and Parkinson’s disease, and a new study will look at whether labradors and cocker spaniels can be trained to detect Covid-19 in people.

Researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine will carry out the first phase of a trial in collaboration with Durham Universityand the charity Medical Detection Dogs.

The initial stage of the research will see odour samples collected from coronavirus patients in London hospitals. Six specialist dogs will then undergo training to identify the virus from the samples.

Lord Bethell, the minister for innovation, said the government believed the dogs “might provide speedy results as part of our wider testing strategy”.

The project’s lead researcher, Prof James Logan, head of the department of disease control at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: “Our previous work has shown that malaria has a distinctive odour, and, with Medical Detection Dogs, we successfully trained dogs to accurately detect malaria.

dogs and coronavirus

“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 revolutionise how we detect the virus, with the potential to screen high numbers of people.”

Research gathered by Medical Detection Dogs has suggested that the dogs could each screen up to 250 people an hour, and can be trained to detect the odour of disease at the equivalent dilution of one teaspoon of sugar in two Olympic-sized swimming pools of water.

The charity and the universities submitted a proposal for the clinical trial to the government, and it was accepted earlier this week and awarded £500,000 of funding.

Claire Guest, the co-founder and CEO of Medical Detection Dogs, said: “We are delighted that the government has given us the opportunity to demonstrate that dogs can play a role in the fight against Covid-19. They have the potential to help by quickly screening people, which could be vital in the future.”

She added: “We are 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.”

Diabetic people already use dogs to detect when their blood sugar levels are dangerously high or low. The charity Hypo Hounds trains dogs to smell telltale changes on their owner’s breath or in their sweat. The pets can detect a problem earlier than a glucose monitor.

In 2015, Italian researchers announced that they had trained two German shepherds to detect chemicals linked to prostate cancer in urine samples. The dogs were correct in 90% of cases.

In 2018, researchers presented evidence that dogs could tell from sniffing someone’s socks whether they had malaria. After several months of training, a labrador and a labrador-retriever could tell whether a child had the disease even if they were not showing symptoms.

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