Scientists in the United Kingdom are investigating whether dogs are capable of sniffing out COVID-19 infections in the same way that some animals can detect diseases, including malaria and certain cancers.
British charity Medical Detection Dogs and researchers from Durham University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, or LSHTM, believe that, if proven, the method could greatly supplement ongoing testing.
James Logan, who is head of the Department of Disease Control at LSHTM, says a potential detection dog program could help triage up to 250 people an hour.
"Our previous work demonstrated that dogs can detect odors from humans with a malaria infection with extremely high accuracy; above the World Health Organization standards for a diagnostic," Logan said.
Encouraged by anecdotes about dogs changing their behavior when their owners develop cancer, scientists began looking into canine disease detection more than 30 years ago.
Several studies support the theory that dogs can smell some cancers, including prostate and bladder cancer, and research is ongoing into whether they can also detect Parkinson's disease, malaria, and various bacterial infections.
A 2015 study from Auburn University in the United States that involved bovine viral diarrhea virus suggests dogs may be able to detect and discriminate virus-infected cell cultures.
Researchers in the field believe that dogs can detect certain diseases in two ways. The animals can either pick up on changes in a patient's odor brought on by symptoms, or directly sniff out pathogens and cancers in urine, feces, breath, swabs and other samples.
Logan says that if the novel coronavirus itself is odorless to canines, they might still have the capacity to hone in on other smells associated with infection.
"It's early days for COVID-19 odor detection," Logan said. "We do not know if COVID-19 has a specific odor yet, but we know that other respiratory diseases change our body odor so there is a chance that it does. And if it does dogs will be able to detect it. This new diagnostic tool could revolutionize our response to COVID-19."
Steve Lindsay, a professor in the Department of Biosciences at Durham University, said dogs could potentially be used in public spaces and at ports of entry to identify infected travelers.
"If the research is successful, we could use COVID-19 detection dogs at airports at the end of the epidemic to rapidly identify people carrying the virus," Lindsay said. "This would help prevent the re-emergence of the disease after we have brought the present epidemic under control."
Claire Guest, who is chief executive of Medical Detection Dogs, said the method would provide a valuable addition to the fight against COVID-19 as many countries are experiencing a shortage of testing equipment.
"The aim is that dogs will be able to screen anyone, including those who are asymptomatic and tell us whether they need to be tested," Guest said. "This would be fast, effective and non-invasive and make sure the limited National Health Service testing resources are only used where they are really needed."
The team is set to initiate an intense training program that hopes to have dogs ready in six weeks. Under normal circumstances, it takes between six and eight months for a dog to reach a good level of performance in disease detection, according to the charity.
There have been some cases of dogs and cats testing positive for novel coronavirus, including in Belgium and Hong Kong. However, the Hong Kong Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department said there is no evidence that pets can pass the disease on to humans.