The UK government is to start trialling specially-trained sniffer dogs to see if they can detect Covid-19 in humans before they begin to show symptoms as part of its plans for an “early warning” system.
Trials are due to start within the next two weeks to determine whether “covid dogs” are able to detect coronavirus in humans by taking odour samples, which scientists hope could “revolutionise” how the virus is monitored.
The research is being conducted by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in collaboration with the charity Medical Detection Dogs, which has successfully trained dogs to detect different diseases, such as certain cancers, malaria and Parkinson’s.
Ministers hope the method could form part of the Government’s wider test, track and trace programme to prevent further spread of Covid-19.
Innovation minister 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.”
The first stage of the trial will see odour samples collected by NHS staff in London hospitals from people who are infected with coronavirus and those who are uninfected.
These will then be given to six dogs, a mixture of labradors and cocker spaniels and nicknamed in Whitehall the “Super Six”, to see if they can detect the virus.
The Department of Health and Social Care has provided an initial £500,000 for the initial trials.
If it is proven to be successful a second phase of trials will begin over the next four months. Officials hope the sniffer dogs could be fully deployed in six months’ time.
The dogs could each screen up to 250 people per hour and 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.
Professor James Logan, lead researcher for the work and Head of the Department of Disease Control at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said: “Our previous work has shown that malaria has a distinctive odour, and with Medical Detection Dogs, we successfully trained dogs to accurately detect malaria. This, combined with the knowledge that respiratory disease can change body odour, makes us hopeful that the dogs can also detect COVID-19.”