Scientists have previously trained springer spaniels to detect diseases like malaria, and hope to do the same for COVID-19 Bigandt/Depositphotos
There’s a long line of research projects aimed at leveraging the famous sensitivity of canine noses to detect risks to human health, including explosives, cancer and other diseases. But could they help us combat one of the gravest dangers we’ve faced in modern history? UK scientists are embarking on a new venture to train dogs to sniff out the scent of COVID-19, hopeful that they could come to offer a non-invasive way to detect the disease and help stop its spread.
The project is being carried out by researchers at Durham University, who are working with experts from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) along with the charity Medical Detection Dogs.
The same group published a study in 2018 detailing how springer spaniels could be trained to detect the scent of malaria in samples of socks worn by infected children, a skill they hope could one day be used at ports of entry to stop the spread of the disease. The researchers now harbor similar ambitions when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic currently sweeping the world.
“Our previous work demonstrated that dogs can detect odors from humans with a malaria infection with extremely high accuracy – above the World Health Organization standards for a diagnostic,” says Professor James Logan, Head of the Department of Disease Control at LSHTM. “We know that other respiratory diseases like COVID-19, change our body odor so there is a very high chance that dogs will be able to detect it. This new diagnostic tool could revolutionize our response to COVID-19 in the short term, but particularly in the months to come, and could be profoundly impactful.”
Another way dogs may be able to detect those carrying COVID-19 is through subtle changes in their skin temperature, which may be indicative of a fever.
According to the researchers, the trained canines could supplement existing screening methods, and could potentially triage as many as 250 people an hour. They will teach the dogs using the same methods previously employed to train dogs to detect cancer, Parkinson’s and bacterial infections, which means exposing them to samples in a room and teaching them to determine which are carrying disease or infection.
“In principle, we’re sure that dogs could detect COVID-19,” says Dr Claire Guest, CEO and Co-Founder of Medical Detection Dogs. “We are now looking into how we can safely catch the odor of the virus from patients and present it to the dogs. The aim is that dogs will be able to screen anyone, including those who are asymptomatic and tell us whether they need to be tested. This would be fast, effective and non-invasive and make sure the limited NHS testing resources are only used where they are really needed.”