Dogs are being enlisted in the fight against the novel coronavirus. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania are testing a pack of eight Labrador retrievers to find out if their sensitive snouts can detect the pandemic virus by scent, Karin Brulliard reports for the Washington Post.
Humans have trained our canine friends' finely tuned noses to sniff out other deadly diseases, including malaria, diabetes, some cancers and Parkinson’s disease, reported Ian Tucker for the Guardian in 2018. Other research has shown that viruses give off a particular smell, Cynthia Otto, director of the Working Dog Center at UPenn’s School of Veterinary Medicine, tells the Post.
If the dogs’ 300 million scent receptors can be trained to smell the novel coronavirus they could eventually be used in public places such as airports, businesses or hospitals to quickly and easily screen large numbers of people. Because this diagnosis by dog would depend on the smell given off by people infected with COVID-19 it should have no problem picking out asymptomatic carriers.
The yellow, black and chocolate labs will be trained for three weeks using a process called odor imprinting. Miss M., Poncho and six other dogs will be exposed to COVID-19 positive saliva or urine collected from hospitals and then rewarded with food when they pick out the correct samples, according to a statement from UPenn. When the dogs have the scent, they’ll be tested to see if they can pick out COVID-19 positive people.
“We don’t know that this will be the odor of the virus, per se, or the response to the virus, or a combination,” Otto, who is leading the project, tells the Post. “But the dogs don’t care what the odor is. … What they learn is that there’s something different about this sample than there is about that sample.”
Dogs are also being trained for this purpose in the United Kingdom by the charity Medical Detection Dogs in collaboration with Durham University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, reports the BBC.
"This would help prevent the re-emergence of the disease after we have brought the present epidemic under control," Steve Lindsay, public health entomologist at Durham University, tells the BBC.
The U.K. trial expects to start collecting COVID-19 positive samples in the coming weeks and will train its dogs shortly thereafter, per the Post. If the trial is successful the group aims to distribute six dogs to be used for screening in U.K. airports.
“Each individual dog can screen up to 250 people per hour,” James Logan, epidemiologist at Durham University and collaborator on the project, tells the Post. “We are simultaneously working on a model to scale it up so it can be deployed in other countries at ports of entry, including airports.”
Otto tells the Post that the trial could inspire an electronic sensor that could detect COVID-19 which might be able to rapidly test thousands of people. But if the dogs’ olfactory prowess can’t be replicated, then the ability to scale up could be limited by another issue: the U.S.’s shortage of detection dogs.