How dogs are being trained to sniff out COVID-19

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How dogs are being trained to sniff out COVID-19

Dogs have been trained to detect a range of diseases in humans, from Parkinson’s to cancer. Now, researchers in the UK are training them to sniff out COVID-19.

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc around the world, killing hundreds of thousands and causing major economic and societal problems. But there’s some good news amid all the doom and gloom. Along with the advances being made towards treatments and vaccines, research in the UK is indicating that dogs could become a valuable asset when it comes to detecting the disease in people, even when the latter are asymptomatic.

US research and the “Super Six”

Certain diseases have specific odors, so medical detection dogs are experts when it comes to identifying unique smells as well as skin temperature changes. A UK charity named Medical Detection Dogs is set to begin training a team of six dogs, some of which are already established detector dogs, to sniff out COVID-19. The trial was first proposed in March and is due to start in early June (as of this writing). Dubbed the “Super Six” the dogs’ names are Norman, Digby, Storm, Star, Jasper and Asher. The charity is working alongside Durham University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) to train the dogs.  The “Super Six” are undergoing an eight- to ten-week trial to see if they can effectively detect the virus in people. The hope is that the dogs will be able to help detect travelers at airports with fevers linked to COVID-19 so they can be tested and treated.

“In principle, we’re sure that dogs could detect COVID-19,” says Dr. Claire Guest, CEO and Co-Founder of Medical Detection 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. It would be fast, effective and non-invasive and make sure limited NHS testing resources are only used where they are really needed.”

Safe sample collection

Not surprisingly, the team has had to figure out a way to safely catch the odor of the virus from patients and present it to the dogs. So the first stage of the trial is being conducted in UK hospitals with the help of asymptomatic healthcare workers who are first tested for COVID-19. Those who test positive are then asked to wear a pair of sterilized nylon socks, as well as a facemask, for a period of a few hours – nylon is very effective at collecting odor. Half the samples are sent to a lab so scientists can attempt to figure out which chemicals make up the virus’s odor, while the other half to go the Medical Detection Dogs facility where the “Super Six” are learning to detect COVID’s smell.

What about the dogs’ safety?

“Scientists have found that although COVID-19 is a novel virus that originated from animals and was passed on to humans, dogs cannot contract the disease,” says Gemma Butlin at Medical Detection Dogs. “A recent published paper indicates that cats can contract it, but that dogs can’t.” Nevertheless, the team is taking every possible precaution to keep the dogs safe and healthy. “It’s believed that it is completely safe for dogs to perform this trial, but we will keep in constant contact with scientists and veterinarians to confirm it,” says Gemma. “The dogs will be trained on non-infectious samples and will not need to make contact with the individuals they are screening.”

While we need to wait and see how the reserarch progresses, what we know so far looks promising. If these trials are successful (there’s now one underway in the US as well – see sidebar), COVID-19 detection dogs could play an important role in helping to stem the spread of this often fatal virus.

To follow the “Super Six”, visit facebook.com/MedicalDetectionDogs.