UK trial to use dogs to detect COVID-19

A UK trial is currently investigating whether dogs’ sense of smell can help detect cases of COVID-19, something that could revolutionize the process of screening people for the virus. (Reuters)

LONDON: It is common knowledge that a dog’s sense of smell, far superior to a human’s, can be deployed for a number of causes beneficial to society.

At airports worldwide, dogs are used to check people and luggage for signs of illegal drugs and other illicit goods, while some breeds are also used by police forces to help track fugitives or locate missing people.

But a UK trial is currently investigating whether dogs’ sense of smell can help detect cases of COVID-19, something that could revolutionize the process of screening people for the virus.

The trial, being conducted by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), Durham University and the Medical Detection Dogs charity, has been allocated £500,000 ($605,185) by the UK government to assess the use of dogs as a non-invasive virus-detection method. 

The trial is expected to last up to three months, while similar trials have also been launched in France and the US.

Six dogs — labradors and cocker spaniels — will be taught to distinguish between the scent given by people with COVID-19, and those who do not have the disease, by being given various samples of each.

The samples will be presented to the six dogs on swabs and other sources, including used face masks.

The use of dogs as detectors of medical conditions, though not as well-known as their use in policing and border control, is not new — certain breeds can be taught to detect malaria, Parkinson’s disease and several types of cancer. They are known as “bio-detection dogs.”

If the UK trial proves successful, it is estimated that a single dog could screen 250 people per hour for COVID-19, expediting the process at airports and elsewhere.

“They have the potential to help by quickly screening people, which could be vital in the future,” said Dr. Claire Guest, co-founder and CEO of Medical Detection Dogs.

“We are sure our dogs will be able to find the odor of COVID-19, and we will then move into a second phase to test them in live situations, following which we hope to work with other agencies to train more dogs for deployment. We are incredibly proud that a dog’s nose could once again save many lives.”

Prof. James Logan, head of the department of disease control at the LSHTM, said: “If successful, this approach could revolutionize how we detect the virus, with the potential to screen high numbers of people.”

The UK’s Innovation Minister James Bethell said the use of dogs in other medical environments to detect ailments gave the government hope that the trial could bear fruit and deliver “speedy” results.

“Accuracy is essential,” he added, “so this trial will tell us whether ‘COVID dogs’ can reliably detect the virus and stop it spreading.”

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