The trained sniffer dogs could potentially screen up to 250 travelers for COVID-19 per hour.
UK researchers are studying airport sniffer dogs to determine if they may be able to detect COVID-19 in travelers even before carriers show symptoms of the virus.
Airport sniffer dogs are commonly trained to detect drugs, explosives, weapons, or other contraband, and some dogs are specially trained to detect infections and diseases.
Dogs have smell receptors 10,000 times more accurate than those of humans, enabling them to sniff out health afflictions such as hypoglycemic emergencies, cancer, malaria, and Parkinson’s disease through contact with skin, breath, blood, and other bodily fluids.
Researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine argue respiratory diseases such as the novel coronavirus change body odor. With the proper training, dogs may be able to detect such changes in COVID-19 carriers.
The researchers are working with the Medical Detection Dogs charity and the UK’s Durham University to train six dogs for a preliminary trial after receiving a £500,000 research grant from the UK government.
“The Super Six” are all Labradors or Cocker Spaniels, two common breeds of sniffer dogs.
The lead researcher on the project, Professor James Logan, is confident the preliminary trial will yield productive results.
“It builds up on 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,” the BBC quoted Logan as saying.
“We’ve shown that dogs can be trained to detect that with very high accuracy,” said the researcher, who also serves as head of the Department of Disease Control at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
The first step in the research is to collect odor samples from individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19 and from those who are virus-free, according to Professor Steve Lindsay, a public health entomologist at Durham University.
After the carriers and non-carriers wear face masks for several hours, researchers will use the masks to help the dogs distinguish between the different scents.
The team will also use nylon socks to collect odor samples. “We’ve known from our previous experience that this is a really good way of collecting odors from people and it’s such an easy way to do it,” said Lindsay.
Researchers believe that the success of the study could help revive the COVID-19-battered travel industry by reinforcing measures to ensure public health at airports while eliminating the need for travelers to go into quarantine after a trip.
If the endeavor proves successful, the trained COVID-19 sniffer dogs could be stationed at key entry points in the UK, namely airports, and potentially screen up to 250 travelers per hour.
“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,” Lindsay explained.
CEO and co-founder of Medical Detection Dogs Dr. Claire Guest said she thinks the dogs’ ability to quickly screen people will be invaluable as the UK moves towards deconfinement, according to BBC.
“Hopefully this will prevent a second peak and enable precious NHS resources to be used where most needed,” said Guest. “We are incredibly proud that a dog’s nose could once again save many lives.”
Health services and law enforcement have long employed dogs’ hyper-sensitive sense of smell to aid in criminal operations, security screenings, search and rescue missions, pest management, and the detection of medical conditions.
Common dog breeds used in public service include Beagles, Belgian Malinois, various types of Collies, Bloodhounds, English Springer Spaniels, German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, and Labrador Retrievers.