It is hoped the dogs – which are already used to sniff out cancer, Parkinsons and low blood pressure – will soon be deployed to the front line in the battle against Covid-19.
Charity Medical Detection Dogs, based in Milton Keynes, is working with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Durham University on the project.
Experts believe the dogs could be trained to detect the disease in as little as six weeks to provide a rapid, non-invasive diagnosis.
Dogs cannot be infected by the virus or spread it to humans, according to the World Health Organisation.
“Dogs searching for Covid-19 would be trained in the same way as those dogs the charity has already trained to detect diseases like cancer, Parkinson’s and bacterial infections – by sniffing samples in the charity’s training room and indicating when they have found it,” Medical Detection Dogs said in a statement announcing the move.
“They are also able to detect subtle changes in temperature of the skin, so could potentially tell if someone has a fever.
“Once trained, dogs could also be used to identify travellers entering the country infected with the virus or be deployed in other public spaces.”
Dr Claire Guest, CEO and co-founder of the charity, added: “In principle, we’re sure that dogs could detect Covid-19. We are now looking into how we can safely catch the odour of the virus from patients and present it to the dogs.
“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.
She added: “This would be fast, effective and non-invasive and make sure the limited NHS testing resources are only used where they are really needed.”
Professor James Logan, from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said: “Our previous work demonstrated that dogs can detect odours from humans with a malaria infection with extremely high accuracy – above the World Health Organisation standards for a diagnostic.
“We know that other respiratory diseases like Covid-19, change our body odour so there is a very high chance that dogs will be able to detect it.
He added: This new diagnostic tool could revolutionise our response to Covid-19 in the short term, but particularly in the months to come, and could be profoundly impactful.”
Professor Steve Lindsay at Durham University added: “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.
“This would help prevent the re-emergence of the disease after we have brought the present epidemic under control.”
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