As the world is struggling to contain the coronavirus pandemic, could canines "revolutionize" the COVID-19 response by emerging as a "new diagnostic tool"? Experts believe so. Dogs are being trained in the US and the UK to sniff out the coronavirus.
According to the Washington Post, eight Labrador retrievers are being trained under a University of Pennsylvania research project to determine whether canines have the capability to detect an odour associated with the coronavirus.
Similar efforts are being made at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, where researchers previously demonstrated that dogs could identify malaria infections in humans.
If the training is successful, then dogs might eventually be used in a sort of "canine surveillance" corps. They can screen people in airports, businesses or hospitals.
It will not be surprising if the dogs pass the test of detecting SARS-CoV-2. Besides drugs, explosives, and contraband food items, dogs are able to sniff out malaria, cancers, and even a bacterium ravaging Florida's citrus groves.
Researchers have found viruses have specific odours, said Cynthia M. Otto, director of the Working Dog Center at Penn's School of Veterinary Medicine.
"We don't know that this will be the odour of the virus, per se, or the response to the virus, or a combination," said Otto, who is leading the project. "But the dogs don't care what the odour is. ... What they learn is that there's something different about this sample than there is about that sample."
James Logan, head of London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine's disease control department, called canines a "new diagnostic tool" that "could revolutionize our response to COVID-19."
He said on Tuesday that his research team expects to begin collecting COVID-19 samples "within a matter of weeks" and working with the charity Medical Detection Dogs to train canines soon after.
"Each individual dog can screen up to 250 people per hour," Logan said in an email. "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."
Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, Miss M., Poncho, and six other chocolate, yellow and black Labs have begun their first stage of training, which is learning to identify an odour for a food reward.
Next, the dogs will be trained using urine and saliva samples collected from patients who tested positive and negative at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
"That's going to be the next proof of concept: Can we train them to identify it when a person has it and that person's moving? Or even standing still?" Otto said.
Exactly how COVID-19 detection dogs might be put to use in the United States would depend on demands, Otto said, though no one's talking about stationing a dog in every hospital or testing site.