Testing has begun to see whether medical detection dogs can also be trained to smell the disease.
Scientists are seeking “odour samples” from people in the region to see whether dogs can accurately pick up the scent of COVID-19, even in people who are asymptomatic.
There could be huge implications if the dogs can successfully smell out COVID-19, not just in medical settings but in other sectors of society too, with researchers estimating the animals could potentially screen up to 250 people an hour.
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As part of the trial, led by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) in collaboration with the charity Medical Detection Dogs and Durham University, people in the North West – where there has been a recent rise in cases – are being asked to contribute.
Patients who have mild COVID-19 symptoms and are due to have a swab test, or have had a swab test conducted in the previous 24 hours, are being recruited by researchers.
The volunteers will provide samples of breath and body odour by wearing a mask for three hours, and nylon socks and a T-shirt for 12 hours.
Researchers hope to collect 325 positive and 675 negative samples in order to be fully test the dogs for accuracy.
Samples from NHS volunteers and their families are also being collected.
LSHTM researchers will analyse the samples to identify compounds in odour that signify when someone is infected with COVID-19.
The samples will then be sent to the Medical Detection Dogs’ training centre in Milton Keynes where the animals will undergo training to identify the virus samples.
A dog’s nose has 300 million receptors compared with our 5 million. In the same way as they point out illegal drugs in airports, dogs could be trained to sniff out disease in people.
Preliminary research led by the University of Veterinary Medicine, Hannover, published in July that dogs could be trained to sniff out COVID-19 with a detection rate of 94 per cent.
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“If successful, this trial could revolutionise how we diagnose the virus,” said professor James Logan, project lead and head of the Department of Disease Control at LSHTM.
“Rapid screening of high numbers of people, even if asymptomatic, will help return our lives back to some sort of normality.”
It is hoped that if the trial is successful the dogs can be used at UK airports to screen people arriving from abroad.
Dr Claire Guest, chief executive of Medical Detection Dogs, added: “It is vital that we train our dogs to detect the odour of COVID-19 as soon as possible so we can help ensure people move about freely and safely.
“The latest travel disruptions further highlight the difference the dogs could make. Public support is essential in making this possible.
“Anyone who assists us by providing samples will be playing a part in creating a fast, effective and non-invasive diagnosis for the virus and safer spaces for us all.”
Professor Steve Lindsay, from the Department of Biosciences at Durham University, said: “If we can show that our trained dogs can identify people carrying the virus, but who are not sick, it will be a game changer.
“We will then be able to scale-up the use of dogs at ports of entry to identify travellers entering the country with the virus. This could be very important to help prevent a second wave of the epidemic.”
People who think they could be eligible to help with the study are being encouraged to call 0207 927 2777.
Can my dog get coronavirus?
There have so far been two cases of dogs testing positive for the coronavirus, both in Hong Kong for dogs whose owners were hospitalised with COVID-19. The tests used on the dogs are the same as those used on people: nasal and oral swabs that test for the genetic material of the coronavirus.
However, both dogs had very low levels of the virus, and it’s not clear if they were infected or had just breathed in contaminated air. Neither dog showed any signs of illness, nor any immune response. If they were infected, then it was a very minor infection.
It is theoretically possible for our dogs and cats to become infected by the coronavirus, but the science suggests that it’s very unlikely. The virus would have to be able to replicate well in our pets, for which there’s no evidence, and it’s also rare for a virus to jump to a different species.
That said, pets do pose a risk of transmission if someone touches an animal that belongs to someone with COVID-19. Because of this, people who have symptoms of COVID-19 are advised to limit their contact with pets and wash their hands before and after interacting with them. For everyone else, keep regularly washing your hands and practise physical distancing, from people as well their pets.
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