As in so many instances of crisis and danger throughout human history, we may once again find ourselves relying upon our canine companions to come to our rescue—this time to help quell the spread of COVID-19.
Targeted research and trials are already underway in the United Kingdom (U.K.) to see whether specially-trained airport sniffer dogs could detect COVID-19 among travelers, even before they begin to display symptoms.
The U.K.’s government has granted £500,000 (over $600,000) to aid the undertaking, being conducted by researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Durham University and charity organization, Medical Detection Dogs.
The collaborative team explained to CNN that respiratory diseases, once contracted, cause changes in body odor, and they believe that trained dogs’ superior smellers will be able to pick up on this change in COVID-19 carriers.
It’s already common practice for specially-trained dogs to detect certain illnesses, acquired or infectious, including malaria, diabetes, cancer and Parkinson’s disease.
Highly-trained detection dogs are already commonplace in airports worldwide, though they’re usually on the hunt for contraband like drugs or weapons secreted among passengers or their baggage. For the preliminary U.K. trial, the team selected half a dozen dogs—nicknamed “The Super Six”—to start COVID-19-targeted training, all of them either Labrador retrievers or cocker spaniels.
Professor James Logan, head of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine’s department of disease control and lead researcher on the study, expressed his confidence in the project’s potential: “It builds upon years of research that we’ve already done as a team to demonstrate that people who have a malaria infection have a distinctive body odor and we’ve shown that dogs can be trained to detect that with very high accuracy.”
If successful, such a breakthrough could help to restart the travel industry, which continues to struggle with the question of regaining consumer confidence, particularly in terms of air travel, where the risk of viral transmission is perceived to be greater. Such a rapid detection and rule-out method at airports would all but eliminate the need for air travelers to undergo a two-week quarantine at their destinations.
“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,” said Professor Steve Lindsay, a public health entomologist at the U.K.’s Durham University.
The hope, then, is that the first set of sniffer dogs could be deployed at key entry points into the U.K. within the next six months, with one dog being potentially able to screen upwards of 250 people each hour. While experts don’t believe that dogs can contract the virus, care will also be taken to ensure that they don’t provide a means of transmission.
“Our dogs will be trained on a dead virus and then have no contact with the individuals they are screening, but will sniff the air around the person,” explained Medical Detection Dogs representative, Gemma Butlin. “The dogs will only be permitted to be touched by the handler, which therefore means there will be very low risk of spread of the virus from the dog to their handler or to the people they live with.”
Dr. Claire Guest, CEO and co-founder of Medical Detection Dogs, believes that the dogs’ anticipated ability to quick-screen people for COVID-19 infection could also prove invaluable domestically within the U.K. as the country begins to relax its lockdown measures. “Hopefully, this will prevent a second peak and enable precious NHS [National Health Service] resources to be used where most needed,” she said. “We are incredibly proud that a dog’s nose could once again save many lives.”
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Could Air Bridges and Travel Bubbles Save Europe’s Summer Season?
Some European countries are currently considering the formation of “air bridges” (a.k.a. “travel corridors” or “travel bubbles”), which would enable tourists to travel between destinations that have demonstrated low volumes of COVID-19 cases without the need to undergo the standard, fourteen-day self-quarantine.
All of Europe seems eager to salvage something of its summer holiday season amid ongoing restrictions aimed at reducing the global spread of the novel coronavirus. As even the hardest-hit areas of the continent, such as Italy and Spain, are beginning to emerge from their pandemic-prompted lockdowns, people are cautiously resuming business and looking to leave their days of cabin fever behind.
Prolonged lockdowns and the imminent arrival of Europeans’ traditional vacation season have prompted some countries to make piecemeal agreements with neighboring nations to allow unrestricted, bilateral travel between themselves and enable at least some measure of leisure travel this year.
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have already formed their own so-called “Baltic bubble”, allowing free movement of their respective residents while maintaining closure of their exterior borders closed to everyone else. Australia and New Zealand are reportedly considering a similar arrangement between themselves for a free-travel zone that could even expand to include select South Pacific islands.
In the United Kingdom (U.K.), the notion of “air bridges” was recently raised in the House of Commons by Minister of Parliament Huw Merriman, chairman of the Transport Select Committee, who suggested that: “This would boost confidence in aviation travel and target safety where it is most needed.”
A mandatory two-week quarantine applicable to inbound travelers—a measure that’s been widely adopted around the world amid pandemic conditions—is not something that has thus far been implemented in the U.K., although one is now, finally set to take effect in June.
According to The Independent, British Transport Secretary Grant Shapps fears the further economic shutdown that this move might trigger and is consequently pushing for the adoption of travel corridors. “We should indeed consider further improvements—for example, air bridges enabling people from other countries that have achieved lower levels of coronavirus infection to come to the country,” he said.
On May 10, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that the U.K.’s upcoming self-isolation measures would not apply to travelers arriving from France, thanks to a special arrangement made between himself and French President, Emmanuel Macron. The British government had also already indicated that arrivals from Ireland would be exempted from quarantine rules, said BBC News.
The possible formation of other air bridges is under discussion between the U.K., Greece and Portugal, where COVID-19 infection rates remain relatively low. Spain, France and Italy have also been put forth as possibilities during U.K. government briefings. An official spokesperson for the Prime Minister said that, for now, “It’s an option under consideration, but not agreed Government policy.”
It has even been suggested that an air bridge between the U.K. and U.S. might be introduced in the future. According to the Express, Visit Britain’s Director of Strategy and Communications for, Patricia Yates, told Parliament’s Digital Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee that, “Our American regional director is telling us sort of America is ready to go, American business is ready to go.”
However, with the U.S. reporting 1.7 million confirmed coronavirus cases and its death toll continuing to be the world’s highest, it’s unlikely that such an arrangement would be approved anytime soon.
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