The United Kingdom government on Saturday launched trials for specially-trained 'Covid dogs' that may be able to detect coronavirus in humans, even before symptoms appear, as part of a new research.
The trials will establish whether these dogs could be used as a potential new non-invasive, early warning measure to detect coronavirus in the future.
Researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine will carry out the first phase of a trial in collaboration with the charity Medical Detection Dogs and Durham University, backed by £500,000 of government funding, the Department of Health and Social Care said. The aim of the first phase will be to determine whether dogs are able to detect coronavirus in humans from odour samples.
The trial brings together leading disease control experts from the universities with Medical Detection Dogs, who have already successfully trained dogs to detect the odour of many different diseases in humans, such as cancer, malaria and Parkinson's disease.
"Bio-detection dogs already detect specific cancers and we believe this innovation might provide speedy results as part of our wider testing strategy," said Lord Bethell, UK Minister for Innovation.
"Accuracy is essential so this trial will tell us whether 'Covid dogs' can reliably detect the virus and stop it spreading," he said.
The trial will look at whether the dogs, a mixture of labradors and cocker spaniels, can be trained to detect coronavirus in people too, even if they are not showing symptoms. It is one of a number of testing measures being explored in order to ensure the government's response to the virus is as extensive as possible, the Department of Health said.
The initial phase of the trial will see National Health Service staff in London hospitals collect odour samples from people who are infected with coronavirus and those who are uninfected. The six bio detection dogs will then undergo thorough training to identify the virus from the samples.
More than 10 years of research gathered by Medical Detection Dogs has shown that the dogs, which could each screen up to 250 people per hour, can be trained to detect the odour of disease at the equivalent dilution of one teaspoon of sugar in two Olympic-sized swimming pools of water.
Professor James Logan, lead researcher for the work and Head of the Department of Disease Control at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: "Our previous work has shown that malaria has a distinctive odour, and with Medical Detection Dogs, we successfully trained dogs to accurately detect malaria.
"This, combined with the knowledge that respiratory disease can change body odour, makes us hopeful that the dogs can also detect Covid-19.
"If successful, this approach could revolutionise how we detect the virus, with the potential to screen high numbers of people."
Medical Detection Dogs and the universities put forward a proposal for the clinical trial to the government, which has been accepted following strong evidence that the dogs can detect other diseases in humans with a high level of accuracy. The dogs will only be deployed if backed by strong scientific evidence, the government said.
Dr Claire Guest, Co-founder and CEO of Medical Detection Dogs, said: "They have the potential to help by quickly screening people, which could be vital in the future.
"We are sure our dogs will be able to find the odour of COVID-19 and we will then move into a second phase to test them in live situations, following which we hope to work with other agencies to train more dogs for deployment. We are incredibly proud that a dog's nose could once again save many lives."