Norman, Digby, Storm, Star, Jasper and Asher have been given a big job. The six dogs have been undergoing an eight-week training programme to teach them how to sniff out coronavirus. Scientists are banking on their sense of smell, as a half-second sniff could tell them if someone is infected with the virus with 90 per cent accuracy.Sniffer dogs like these “Super Six” could help screen people who unknowingly carry coronavirus into busy ports of entry such as airports and train stations, and help stop a second wave of the pandemic by isolating them before they spread it further.
Dogs have an extremely sensitive sense of smell and, with the right training, can detect explosives and drugs, and find dead bodies. As they can pick up on subtle changes in the human body, including odours associated with viral infections, specially trained dogs are also increasingly being used to spot the onset of diseases.
Conditions such as malaria, cancer, diabetes and Parkinson’s disease are already known to give off a particular smell in humans. Scientists from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) believe that specially trained dogs could sniff the odour of coronavirus before people show symptoms, and they are working on a project with Durham University and the charity Medical Detection Dogs to try and prove it.
Norman and friends could offer a fast and non-invasive way of singling out individuals as they walk through passport control at an airport, for instance. Dogs could potentially be more accurate than infrared cameras and “thermometer guns” that screen arriving passengers for high body temperatures – mainly because that technology often fails to detect infection in those with mild symptoms and asymptomatic carriers, who could be behind up to 40 per cent of disease transmissions, according to World Health Organization estimates.
The dogs would alert their handlers if someone needed to be tested. “If the dogs can detect this virus in individuals that haven’t got symptoms, this is going to be a game changer,” says Claire Guest, CEO of Medical Detection Dogs.
Three cocker spaniels – including five-year-old Asher, a rescue dog who now lives with Guest – two labradors and a labradoodle have begun training in Milton Keynes, sniffing sterilised nylon socks worn by hospital workers that tested positive for Covid-19. “The way we sterilise things normally is through disinfectant but if we did that with [Sars-Cov-2], the odour would disappear as well,” says James Logan, the project’s lead researcher and head of the department of disease control at LSHTM. Instead, the team quarantines the sock samples to ensure there is no lingering virus.
The trial, which is backed by half a million pounds of government funding, will establish whether the dogs are indeed able to smell Covid-19. The scientists will place each nylon sock in a glass jar attached to a metal stand, lining them up one next to the other along with other scents from people who are not infected.
When the dogs can point out the coronavirus samples, they are rewarded with a food treat, to associate the particular smell with a reward. Some of the sock samples are being analysed in the lab to determine what chemicals the odour consists of. This will essentially tell the researchers what Covid-19 smells like.
If the trial is successful, the “Super Six” in training could be ready for airports within six to eight weeks. But their work is not without risk. There have been some reports of dogs catching coronavirus from their owners, although they do not seem to show symptoms of the disease. The sniffer dogs are trained on deactivated samples of virus. In the field – where each could screen up to 250 people an hour – they will sniff the air around a person without making direct contact to prevent the risk of transmission.
Logan is hoping the project will have an impact beyond the UK. “A big part of what we will do is establish a method and some sort of level of certification so that we can ensure that other organisations that are doing this, are doing it to the right standards,” he says. “That’s very important from a scientific point of view in terms of accuracy, but also from the animal welfare point of view.”
The team is already in touch with fire brigades, the military and other overseas organisations that train bio-detection dogs. Canines specialised in explosives or narcotics cannot simply be retrained to detect Covid-19, though. “The dogs that will be going out to work will all be dogs that haven’t worked on previous conditions. So we know if they stop, it’s only for Covid-19,” says Guest.
The UK may be bringing the virus under control, but spikes in cases will be inevitable as the country remains open to international travellers. “It’s going to be some time that we’re going to be screening people who come in and out of the country for the virus, so [the sniffer dogs] could be very useful going forward,” says Logan. His team is racing to prove their theory right. “Who knows where other countries will be by the time we’ve done this,” he says. “They might be still on their first wave.”
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