Each dog could potentially screen up to 250 people per hour, playing a vital role in detecting the virus in places including airports.
- Researchers in the UK are training dogs to detect the coronavirus in patients, even before they show symptoms.
- A team from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Durham University are hoping that similar to diseases like cancer and malaria, COVID-19 will also have a detectable smell.
- The samples will be taken from healthcare workers who test positive for COVID-19 but are not showing symptoms. They will need to wear nylon socks and face masks for a few hours to absorb the smell.
- Some of the samples will be sent to a dog training center where six specialist dogs — dubbed "The Super Six" — will undergo an intense 8 to 10-week trial.
- If successful, the sniffer dogs could screen up to 250 people an hour and play a vital role in detecting the virus in key transportation hubs, including airports and train stations.
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Researchers in the UK are conducting extensive trials to see whether trained sniffer dogs can detect the coronavirus in patients, even before they show any symptoms.
Previously, it's been found that people with illnesses like malaria, cancer, and Parkinson's give off a particular odor, which dogs are trained to detect. The research team behind the trial — starting in the next two weeks — is hoping the same will be true with COVID-19.
Researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) are collaborating with Durham University and the charity Medical Detection Dogs to carry out the project. The team first announced their trial in late March, and have now received £500,000 ($610,000) worth of funding from the government.
Lord Bethell, the minister for innovation, said the UK government believed the dogs "might provide speedy results as part of our wider testing strategy," the Guardian reported.
If successful, the sniffer dogs could screen up to 250 people an hour and play a vital role in detecting the virus in key transportation hubs, including airports and train stations.
But what does the training process look like?
Covid-19 patients will be asked to wear sterilized nylon socks to collect odor samples
Professor James Logan, the project's lead researcher and head of the department of disease control at LSHTM, told Business Insider the initial stage of the trial would be conducted in hospitals across the UK. "We will work with different NHS hospitals in the country to recruit healthcare workers who will then be tested for COVID-19," Logan said.
Those who test positive will be asked to wear a pair of sterilized nylon socks as well as a face mask for a few hours. The socks are essential in the process because nylon "is a very good matrix to collect odor" and has proven to be an easy and effective way to obtain a person's scent, explained Logan.
All of the samplings will be supplied by people who are showing no symptoms. "Anybody who has symptoms will not be included in the study and that's a very important aspect. So the infection we know for other diseases is detectable at an early stage before the symptoms come on so we believe it could be the same for COVID-19," said Logan.
Six specialist dogs will be trained to sniff out the virus
Once the samples are taken, half will be sent to a lab where scientists will try to determine what chemicals the odor is composed of — in other words, finding out what COVID-19 smells like.
The other samples will go to the charity based in Milton Keynes — just outside of London — where six specialist dogs dubbed "The Super Six" will be trained to sniff them out.
The intense dog training will last between 8 to 10 weeks. It includes putting the samples on metal stands along with other scents from people not infected with COVID-19. When the dog can point out the coronavirus scent, it gets a treat.
The team hopes the dogs will be able to detect the coronavirus before people show symptoms of it.
"We will know early on if there is a signal at all. We are starting with the socks samples. If that doesn't work, we will move to the breath samples," said Logan. "By the end of that, we will have a level of understanding of how well the dogs can tell us when somebody is infected correctly and how well they can tell if someone is not infected correctly," he added.
The team expects the final results to come in between August and September. If these are promising, they will move into the next phase of the project, which involves looking at how it can work on a larger scale.
The trial has the potential to change future travel
The researchers hope that the first set of dogs could be deployed to key transportation hubs in the UK, including airports and train stations within the next six months. Each dog could potentially screen up to 250 people per hour.
Professor Steve Lindsay, a public health entomologist at Durham University, told CNN: "The basic idea is we can screen travelers innocently coming into this country who may be carrying COVID-19, detect those people and isolate them from the rest of the community."
But Logan admits that this step will be "very challenging," and they are planning on working with other organizations to get help.
"In those circumstances, there's already a model for dogs at airports or dogs that detect bombs, drugs, explosives, and food that's been imported. So we will be working with agencies that already have dogs in place for those things so that some of these dogs could be re-trained," he said.
Globally, the potential of dogs being able to detect COVID-19 is also under serious consideration.
In the US, the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine has launched apilot training program in which they use scent detection with dogs to discriminate between samples from COVID-19 positive and negative patients.
Meanwhile, researchers in Corsica, France, started trials last month to re-train rescue and fire brigade sniffer dogs by teaching them to associate the smell of swabs taken from COVID-19 patients with their favorite toys, according to France 24.
Business Insider has also been in contact with a research team in Iran that oversees a similar project,backed by the Iranian Army.
While all these trials are still in their early stages, those running the UK project are hopeful that the dogs could be a vital tool in the fight against the coronavirus.
"If successful, this approach could revolutionize how we detect the virus, with the potential to screen high numbers of people," Logan said.