Sniffer dogs could be trained to detect Covid-19 in people

‘We know that other respiratory diseases like Covid-19 change our body odour so there is a very high chance that dogs will be able to detect it,’ say organisers behind new project

Medically-trained dogs could be used to detect coronavirus in passengers arriving at UK airports once the country’s lockdown restrictions are eased.

A project coordinated between the Medical Detection Dogs charity, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and Durham University is exploring how sniffer dogs can be used to aid with Britain’s coronavirus response.

Detection dogs are capable of sniff testing up to 750 people an hour, though it will take several weeks of experimentation before establishing whether the animals are able to identify Covid-19 in humans.

Canines at Medical Detection Dogs have previously been used to help screen for a range of conditions, including cancer and malaria.

The organisation’s founder believes the animals could detect Covid-19 in asymptomatic passengers arriving into the country when lockdown measures are relaxed and international travel increases again.

“People are coming in and may be asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic those few days when you’ve got the virus and don’t know it,” Dr Claire Guest told the BBC’s Today programme.

“A dog is sniffing each person in turn – it takes 0.5 of a second, the dog quickly identifies which people need a test and need to go straight into isolation to prevent the further spread around the UK.”

“This would be fast, effective and non-invasive and make sure the limited NHS testing resources are only used where they are really needed,” Dr Guest writes on the charity’s website.

“In principle, we’re sure that dogs could detect Covid-19. We are now looking into how we can safely catch the odour of the virus from patients and present it to the dogs.”

Six dogs are being taught to detect Covid-19. The group of three working cocker spaniels, a Labrador, a Labradoodle and a Labrador golden retriever cross could be trained in six to eight weeks.

As part of the training, which requires £500,000 in funding, the dogs will be given face masks and other fabric worn by coronavirus patients to discover if Covid-19 has a scent that can be quickly identified.

“We know that diseases have got these unique odours, we know how rapidly (dogs are) able to identify them, that’s why they’re used for drugs and explosives,” Dr Guest said.

“It’s exactly the same with a disease.”

Dr Guest told the BBC the charity has been in discussions with the government and said they were “hopeful” about the project, the only one of its kind in the world.

Professor James Logan, the head of the department of disease control at LSHTM, said:

Our previous work demonstrated that dogs can detect odours from humans with a malaria infection with extremely high accuracy – above the World Health Organisation standards for a diagnostic.

We know that other respiratory diseases like Covid-19 change our body odour so there is a very high chance that dogs will be able to detect it.

“This new diagnostic tool could revolutionise our response to Covid-19 in the short term, but particularly in the months to come, and could be profoundly impactful.”


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