A team of researchers from the United Kingdom is putting forth an intriguing proposition: What if dogs could help detect COVID-19?
Late last month, a team of researchers from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), the registered charity Medical Detection Dogs, and Durham University, all in the U.K., announced an intriguing new initiative.
The team wants to explore the potential of using dogs to detect COVID-19 in people who may have developed the disease.
This idea came from the fact that canines are very adept at picking up on subtle signs of illness thanks to their acute sense of smell.
In fact, some researchers have even suggested that dogs can detect the presence of lung cancer in clinical samples, and that they may be better at it than doctors’ “most advanced technology.”
Also, the same research team that kickstarted the current initiative has found that dogs are capable of “sniffing out” infectious diseases, specifically malaria.
“Our previous work demonstrated that dogs can detect odors from humans with a malaria infection with extremely high accuracy — above the World Health Organization [WHO] standards for a diagnostic,” says Prof. James Logan, head of the Department of Disease Control at LSHTM.
The researchers are currently crowdfunding their initiative to try to train medical detection dogs to screen people for COVID-19.
The scientists acknowledge the fact that it is unclear whether or not COVID-19 is at all detectable in a person’s body odor. However, based on their knowledge of other respiratory conditions, they hypothesize that it is.
“It’s early days for COVID-19 odor detection. We do not know if COVID-19 has a specific odor yet, but we know that other respiratory diseases change our body odor so there is a chance that it does,” explains Prof. Logan.
“And if it does dogs will be able to detect it. This new diagnostic tool could revolutionize our response to COVID-19.”
– Prof. James Logan
The researchers propose that specially trained medical detection dogs could supplement the effort to screen for COVID-19 in the long run.
Trained dogs may be able to sniff up to 250 people per hour, providing a fast and noninvasive screening method.
The researchers explain that the dogs’ training would involve getting them to sniff odor samples from people with COVID-19 and teaching them to discern the smells associated with the disease.
They also note that dogs can identify who is unwell because they are very good at sensing even small changes in skin temperature. Therefore, the dogs may be able to immediately tell who has a fever.
If successful, the investigators believe that medical detection dogs may be able to screen for the respiratory disease after only 6 weeks of training.
In the long run, the scientists note that specially trained dogs could be of service in spaces such as airports, where they would “sniff out” travelers who may have contracted SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
“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 reemergence of the disease after we have brought the present epidemic under control,” suggests Prof. Steve Lindsay, from Durham University.
Commenting on the initiative, Claire Guest — co-founder and CEO of Medical Detection Dogs — says: “In principle, we’re sure that dogs could detect COVID-19. 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,” she says, “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 noninvasive and make sure the limited [National Health Service] testing resources are only used where they are really needed.”