Man’s Best Friend May Spot COVID-19

Dogs bring people great comfort. Many of us would feel like our lives were missing something without dogs. In addition to companionship, they also help us get more exercise than we might otherwise have in our days. They help people with disabilities live fuller lives. Police and the military use them to assist them in their work. And, they can smell at least a dozen human diseases.

With that last fact in mind, a trial in the UK is looking into whether dogs may be able to smell COVID-19. The dogs in the study are already trained. They are airport sniffers who are usually looking for weapons, drugs and other things that cannot be brought onto planes. Many respiratory diseases and various fevers have recognizable scents. The researchers are hoping that COVID-19’s smell unique enough for the dogs to pick out.

The six dogs in the trial are all cocker spaniels or labradors and are being called “The Super Six.” They are being trained by a charity organization called Medical Detection Dogs. Prof. James Logan, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, is leading the research. The researchers are currently collecting the face masks and socks of people with COVID-19 for the dogs to smell.

One of the most significant problems facing the research is figuring out a way to protect the dogs from becoming ill. While it is rare, some canines have contracted COVID-19. “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,” said Claire Guest, CEO and co-founder of Medical Detection Dogs.

It builds upon years of research that we’ve already done as a team to demonstrate that people who have a malaria infection have a distinctive body odor and we’ve shown that dogs can be trained to detect that with very high accuracy,” said Prof Logan.

The work could help people who have to fly and make quarantines after flights unnecessary. The dogs are each able to scan 250 people an hour. Then, people who the dogs identify as carrying COVID-19 could be quarantined while other travelers could be on their way. If successful, it would be more accurate than checking passenger’s temperature.

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,” Ms. Guest said.

The dogs, if capable of sniffing out the virus, maybe trained within six to eight weeks. First, the researchers must find out if the smell of COVID-19 is unique enough for the dogs to smell it. Then, the dogs will be tested with people. After that, more dogs could be trained and then put to work.

This could be a boon to people who must travel now. Most of us are staying put for the moment. Only folks who need to travel are getting on planes. Making their lives easier seems like a big win. And, this would help as countries around the world start to reopen, allowing for safer travel between nations to cut down on the risk of COVID-19 traveling across borders. Much like dogs trained to smell contraband, the COVID-19 dogs may become a staple of airports to stop future outbreaks. 

Banner Image: Medical Detection Dogs via the BBC
May 20, 2020
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