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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