The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), Medical Detection Dogs and Durham University have begun preparations to intensively train dogs so they could be ready in six weeks to help provide a rapid, non-invasive diagnosis towards the tail end of the epidemic.
Increasing coronavirus testing is key, and the team has approached the government about how dogs can play a role in the fight against the disease. The researchers believe that the dogs could supplement ongoing testing by screening for the virus accurately and rapidly, potentially triaging up to 250 people per hour.
Professor James Logan, head of the department of disease control at LSHTM and director of ARCTEC, says: “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.
“It's early days for COVID-19 odour detection. We do not know if COVID-19 has a specific odour yet, but we know that other respiratory diseases change our body odour so there is a chance that it does. And if it does dogs will be able to detect it. This new diagnostic tool could revolutionise our response to COVID-19.”
Dogs searching for COVID-19 would be trained in the same way as those dogs already trained to detect diseases like cancer, Parkinson’s and bacterial infections – by sniffing samples in the training room and indicating which contains 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.
Once trained, dogs could also be used at ports of entry to identify travellers entering the country infected with the virus or be deployed in other public spaces. Dr Claire Guest, CEO and co-founder 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 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 National Health Service (NHS) testing resources are only used where they are really needed.”
Professor Steve Lindsay at Durham University says: “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 with a highly developed sense of smell are already used to diagnose many medical conditions, including Parkinson’s disease and several types of cancer, Bloomberg reports. The LSHTM itself has already trained up animals – labradors and cocker spaniels tend to be especially suited – to detect malaria. Their success rate far exceeds required WHO standards, the centre says.
If the project works, the dogs could be deployed to screen staff at hospitals and care homes and, once regular travel resumes, sniff out unwitting carriers at airports and rail stations. Capable of screening thousands of people per day, the dogs could be a key tool for getting daily life back to normal quickly and safely.London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine material Full Bloomberg report