Tests are getting underway in England to see whether dogs trained to sniff out the coronavirus strain which causes COVID-19 can successfully identify which people have contracted the disease even before they start showing symptoms.
“If successful, this approach could revolutionize how we detect the virus, with the potential to screen high numbers of people,” explained Professor James Logan, lead researcher for the experiments and Head of the Department of Disease Control at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
The basic concept is not something new. For several years now “Medical Detection Dogs,” mostly labradors and cocker spaniels, have proven adept at identifying certain cancers as well as malaria and Parkinson’s disease in humans with a high level of accuracy, according to British researchers.
Dogs Could Check Travelers at Airports and Crowds at Public Venues
If the trials that are now getting underway prove that the “COVID dogs” can actually detect coronavirus infections early on then the researchers say each dog would eventually be capable of screening up to 250 people an hour at places like airports.
It’s not just that the dogs are fast and relatively cheap (although the current trials are being funded with over $600,000 worth of funds from the government of the United Kingdom), what researchers are hoping is that the dogs will prove to be an “early warning” mechanism, something that is missing from current testing regimes.
Right now both laboratory and home tests for COVID-19 are invasive, requiring either nasal swabs or blood samples, and most of them do not pick up on the presence of the virus in a patient until the infection gets to the point – usually somewhere between 2 and 14 days after the person caught the virus – where they start displaying symptoms of illness.
If COVID dogs could quickly point out who is infected, even if they feel fine, it would allow them to go into self isolation before they could unwittingly infect other people with the virus.
Dogs Can Be Trained to Detect Specific Disease Odors in Weeks Not Months
The British charity called Medical Detection Dogs will be working with the researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Durham University to provide the first six dogs which will be trained for the COVID-19 detection experiments, the UK government announced this weekend.
“Our previous work has shown that malaria has a distinctive odor, and with Medical Detection Dogs, we successfully trained dogs to accurately detect malaria. This, combined with the knowledge that respiratory disease can change body odor, makes us hopeful that the dogs can also detect COVID-19,” Professor Logan noted in the announcement.
The researchers said that experience from over a decade working with Medical Detection Dogs on previous projects has shown that the canines can be trained to detect disease-related odors even when they are diluted down to what would be the equivalent of a single teaspoon of sugar mixed into two Olympic-sized swimming pools’ worth of water.
The British government said the initial phase of the trial will utilize staff at hospitals in London who will collect the odor samples from COVID-19 patients that will be used to train the first group of dogs. If the tests prove to be successful the first group of dogs could be working to help find COVID-19 outside of the laboratory by mid-summer.
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