Trials for specially-trained ‘Covid dogs’ that may be able to detect coronavirus in humans, even before symptoms appear, are set to begin as part of new research.
The trials will establish whether they could be used as a potential new non-invasive, early warning measure to detect coronavirus in the future.
World-leading researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) will carry out the first phase of a trial in collaboration with the charity Medical Detection Dogs and Durham University, backed by £500,000 of government funding. This aims to determine whether dogs are able to detect coronavirus in humans from odour samples.
Back in April it was first announced that six dogs would be assessed and trained to detect Covid-19 in passengers at UK airports once the lockdown measures are relaxed.
This trial brings together leading disease control experts from the universities with Medical Detection Dogs, who have already successfully trained dogs to detect the odour of many different diseases in humans, such as cancer, malaria and Parkinson’s disease.
This new trial will look at whether the dogs, a mixture of labradors and cocker spaniels, can be trained to detect coronavirus in people too, even if they are not showing symptoms.
Minister for Innovation Lord Bethell said, “Bio-detection dogs already detect specific cancers and we believe this innovation might provide speedy results as part of our wider testing strategy.
“Accuracy is essential so this trial will tell us whether ‘COVID dogs’ can reliably detect the virus and stop it spreading,” Bethell said.
If successful, these dogs could provide a fast and non-invasive detection method alongside the government’s testing strategy. It is one of a number of testing measures being explored in order to ensure the government’s response to the virus is as extensive as possible.
The initial phase of the trial will see NHS staff in London hospitals collect odour samples from people who are infected with coronavirus and those who are uninfected. The six bio detection dogs will then undergo thorough training to identify the virus from the samples.
More than ten years of research gathered by Medical Detection Dogs has shown that the dogs, which could each screen up to 250 people per hour, 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.
“Our previous work has shown that malaria has a distinctive odour, and with Medical Detection Dogs, we successfully trained dogs to accurately detect malaria,” James Logan, lead researcher for the work and Head of the Department of Disease Control at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said. “This, combined with the knowledge that respiratory disease can change body odour, makes us hopeful that the dogs can also detect Covid-19.”
The dogs will only be deployed if backed by strong scientific evidence and is part of the government’s approach to explore all possible options to tackle coronavirus.
Dr Claire Guest, 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.”
“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,” Guest said. “We are incredibly proud that a dog’s nose could once again save many lives.”