A UK trial to see whether specialist medical sniffer dogs can detect coronavirus in humans is set to begin. The dogs are already trained to detect odours of certain cancers, malaria and Parkinson's disease by the charity Medical Detection Dogs.
The first phase of the trial has been backed with £500,000 ($NZ1.02m) of government funding, and will be led by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the detection dogs' charity and Durham University.
Innovation minister Lord Bethell said he hoped the dogs could provide "speedy results" as part of the government's wider testing strategy.
Delighted to say we just heard the government WILL support the first phase of our COVID-19 proposal. To have the opportunity to demonstrate that dogs can play a role in the fight against the virus is extremely exciting. @LSHTM @durham_uni @DHSCgovuk @neilp https://t.co/ofdlMjqi4m pic.twitter.com/hFlpEZnj89— Medical Detection Dogs (@MedDetectDogs) May 16, 2020
The trial will explore whether the 'Covid dogs' - cocker spaniels and labradors - can spot the virus in humans from smell samples before symptoms appear.
It will establish whether the so-called bio-detection dogs, which could each screen up to 250 people per hour, could be used as a new early warning measure to detect Covid-19 in the future.
The first phase will involve NHS staff in London hospitals collecting odour samples from those infected with coronavirus and those who are uninfected.
Six dogs will then go through training to identify the virus from the samples.
More than 10 years of research gathered by Medical Detection Dogs has shown the dogs can be trained to sniff out the odour of disease at the equivalent dilution of one teaspoon of sugar in two Olympic-sized swimming pools of water.
Dr Claire Guest, the charity's co-founder and chief executive, said she was "sure our dogs will be able to find the odour of Covid-19".
If that proves to be the case, the dogs 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", she said.
Prof James Logan, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: "Our previous work has shown that malaria has a distinctive odour, and with medical detection dogs we successfully trained dogs to accurately detect malaria.
"This, combined with the knowledge that respiratory disease can change body odour, makes us hopeful that the dogs can also detect Covid-19."
French training already under way
Similar experiments have also begun in other countries, including France and the United States.
Firefighters in Corsica, France, have begun training their dogs to sniff out coronavirus in a series of buckets.
The dogs learn by smelling the sweat of people with coronavirus, firefighter Mar Antonio Costa said.
"It doesn't need to be proven that the dogs can [detect diseases by smell]... what needs to be proven is whether or not the Covid molecule has a particular smell," he said.
It is hoped the French training programme could lead to detection dogs that can identify people with the virus at public places like airports.