Can dogs detect COVID-19? Trial gets UK government backing
Updated 04:59, 18-May-2020
Catherine Newman

A study to see if specially trained medical sniffer dogs can detect COVID-19 has been given financial backing by the UK government.

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. 

The trial, involving a mixture of Labradors and Cocker Spaniels, aims to determine whether dogs are able to detect COVID-19 in humans from odour samples before people even start showing symptoms. 

"What we have to do first of all is collect odour samples from people with and without COVID-19," said Steve Lindsay, a public health entomologist at Durham University. 

"The way we are going to do that is by collecting using face masks and we are asking people to wear these face masks for a few hours and then we carefully collect those. 

"The other thing we're going to do is get people to wear nylon socks. That sounds a bit strange but we know from our previous experience that this is a really good way of collecting odours from people and it's such an easy way to do it," Lindsay continued.

The scientists involved in the trials say that, based on more than ten years of research, Medical Detection Dogs could each screen up to 250 people per hour. They can also be trained to detect the odour of disease at the equivalent of one teaspoon of sugar in two Olympic-sized swimming pools of water. 

"Our previous work has shown that malaria has a distinctive odour, and with Medical Detection Dogs, we successfully trained dogs to accurately detect malaria," said James Logan from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. 

"This, combined with the knowledge that respiratory disease can change body odour, makes us hopeful that the dogs can also detect COVID-19," he continued.  

If successful and backed by strong scientific evidence, the dogs could provide a fast and non-invasive form of detection not just in the UK - at places such as airports - but around the world. The research has been backed by more than $600,000 of UK government funding.

"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," said Claire Guest, Co-Founder and CEO of Medical Detection Dogs. 

"We are incredibly proud that a dog's nose could once again save many lives," she added.

Video editor: Riaz Jugon