Respiratory problems, a feature of Covid-19, are known to cause subtle changes to the body’s odour. Research indicates that dogs can be trained to detect the odour of disease at the equivalent dilution of one teaspoon of sugar in two Olympic-sized swimming pools of water.
The initial phase of the trial will see NHS staff at London hospitals collect odour samples from people who are infected with coronavirus and those who are uninfected. The six “bio detection” dogs will then be trained to identify the virus from the samples.
The ability of infected people to transmit coronavirus before they develop symptoms is one of the key factors thwarting efforts to stifle the pandemic.
Lord Bethell, the minister for innovation, said: “Bio-detection dogs already detect specific cancers, and we believe this innovation might provide speedy results as part of our wider testing strategy.
“Accuracy is essential, so this trial will tell us whether ‘Covid dogs’ can reliably detect the virus and stop it spreading.”
The trial is being backed by half a million pounds of Government funding, and the six animals pioneering the research were named on Friday as Norman, Jasper and Asher, all cocker spaniels, Storm and Star, Labradors, and Digby, a labradoodle.
Their work is not without risk. On Friday, a minister in the Netherlands announced that a dog and three cats had been infected with the virus.
The Department of Health said the dogs would only be deployed “if backed by strong scientific evidence”.
Professor James Logan, leading the research at LSHTM 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. If successful, this approach could revolutionise how we detect the virus, with the potential to screen high numbers of people.”
Dr Claire Guest, the co-founder and CEO of Medical Detection Dogs, which is taking part in the project, said: “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.
“We are incredibly proud that a dog’s nose could once again save many lives.”