UK charity training dogs to sniff out COVID-19

PTI, Mar 28, 2020, 6:05 PM IST

London: A UK charity said it is working in partnership with scientists to explore how dogs can be trained to sniff out Covid-19 and join the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

Medical Detection Dogs said it is bringing together a team involving the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and Durham University, which recently collaborated to successfully prove that dogs can be trained to detect malaria.

“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,” said Dr Claire Guest, CEO and Co-Founder of Medical Detection Dogs (MDD).

“The aim is that dogs will be able to screen anyone, including those who are asymptomatic and tell us whether they need to be tested. This would be fast, effective and non-invasive and make sure the limited NHS [National Health Service] testing resources are only used where they are really needed,” she said.

The team has started preparations to intensively train dogs so they could be ready in six weeks to help provide a rapid, non-invasive diagnosis, hopefully at a time when the pandemic would be at its tail end in the UK.

Dogs searching for COVID-19 would be trained in the same way as those dogs the charity has already trained to detect diseases like cancer, Parkinson’s and bacterial infections – by sniffing samples in the charity’s training room and indicating when they have found it.

They are also able to detect subtle changes in temperature of the skin, so could potentially tell if someone has a fever.

Professor James Logan, Head of Department of Disease Control at The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and Director of ARCTEC 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.”

Once trained, dogs could also be used to identify travellers entering the country infected with the virus or be deployed in other public spaces.

Professor Steve Lindsay at Durham University said: “If the research is successful, we could use COVID-19 detection dogs at airports at the end of the epidemic to rapidly identify people carrying the virus.

“This would help prevent the re-emergence of the disease after we have brought the present epidemic under control.”

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