Sniffer dogs could be used to detect cases of Covid-19 at airports within six weeks after researchers began a project to find out whether canines can smell the virus.
Dogs have already been trained to detect diseases such as cancer, Parkinson’s and bacterial infections, and researchers believe coronavirus may also give off an odour that the animals can pick up.
In the coming weeks, Medical Detection Dogs will be working in partnership with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and Durham University to attempt to train dogs to sniff out the disease.
Professor Steve Lindsay, of Durham University, said: “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.
“This would help prevent the re-emergence of the disease after we have brought the present epidemic under control.”
Dogs are also able to detect subtle changes in the temperature of the skin, meaning they could potentially tell if someone has a fever.
Medical Detection Dogs has spent years researching the science behind dogs’ sense of smell and has produced more than a dozen peer-reviewed research papers which suggest each disease has its own unique odour.
The team thinks that, in six weeks, the animals could be ready to help provide a rapid, non-invasive diagnosis towards the tail end of the epidemic and has already approached the Government about how dogs can play a role in the fight against the disease. Once trained, the animals could be used in a number of public places.
Dr Claire Guest, the CEO and co-founder of Medical Detection Dogs, said: “In principle, we’re sure that dogs could detect Covid-19. We are now looking into how we can safely catch the odour 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.”
Professor James Logan, the head of the department of disease control at LSHTM, added: “Our previous work demonstrated that dogs can detect odours from humans with a malaria infection with extremely high accuracy – above the World Health Organisation standards for a diagnostic.
“We know that other respiratory diseases like Covid-19 change our body odour, so there is a very high chance that dogs will be able to detect it.
“This new diagnostic tool could revolutionise our response to Covid-19 in the short term, but particularly in the months to come, and could be profoundly impactful.”