Researchers in London are examining whether sniffer dogs could be used to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. If the dogs can be successfully trained to detect the virus in people, this could be very useful in airports or other points of entry.

A dog sniffing samples in a lab during medical dog training
The dogs are trained to sniff samples in the training room © Medical Detection Dogs

A team from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, Medical Detection Dogs and Durham University is leading the research, having already collaborated to prove that dogs can be trained to detect malaria. They are working on intensively training dogs to help provide a rapid, non-invasive diagnosis of the virus, and believe that the dogs could supplement ongoing testing by screening for the virus accurately and rapidly, potentially triaging up to 250 people per hour.

At present, six dogs – Norman, Digby, Storm, Star, Jasper and Asher – are being assessed, with half of them being rescue dogs. The approach to training is the same as the method used to detect diseases like cancer, Parkinson’s and bacterial infections. The researchers have to establish whether COVID-19 has a specific odour, and then the dogs are trained to sniff samples in the training room and indicate those that contain the disease or infection. They are also able to detect subtle changes in temperature of the skin, so could potentially tell if someone has a fever.

Medical detection dog Norman by a lake
Rescue dog Norman is now a medical detection dog © Medical Detection Dogs

“The samples that the dogs will be trained on at the centre will be deactivated (dead) virus and therefore of no risk to the dogs or handlers," says Dr Claire Guest, CEO and co-founder of Medical Detection Dogs. "When sniffing people, the dogs will not need to make contact but will sniff the air around a person. The dogs will therefore not be in direct contact with the people screened to prevent the risk of spreading the virus.”

A portrait of Asher the medical detection dog
Rescue dog Asher now lives with company CEO Dr Claire Guest © Medical Detection Dogs

A fundraiser has been established to help with the research, and once trained, the researchers believe the dogs could be used at ports of entry or be deployed in other public spaces. “If the research is successful, we could use COVID-19 detection dogs at airports at the end of the epidemic to rapidly identify people carrying the virus," says Professor Steve Lindsay at Durham University. "This would help prevent the re-emergence of the disease after we have brought the present epidemic under control.”

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