Coronavirus pandemic: Can dogs sniff out the disease? A UK team is exploring the possibility

Coronavirus pandemic: Can dogs sniff out the disease? A UK team is exploring the possibility
(Getty Images)

A charity group and UK researchers are exploring the possibility of employing dogs to sniff out the new coronavirus. If canines get it right, doctors might be able to detect the disease in just six weeks, even among people who show no symptoms.

The team is looking at whether dogs can support the ongoing testing capacity. Dogs can potentially examine up to 250 people per hour, according to the team.

Dogs have a keen sense of smell and have proven to be an asset, helping doctors detect diseases. “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," said Professor James Logan, Head of the Department of Disease Control at LSHTM, in a statement.

“We know that other respiratory diseases like COVID-19 change our body odor so there is a very high chance that dogs will be able to detect it. This new diagnostic tool could revolutionize our response to COVID-19 in the short term, but particularly in the months to come, and could be profoundly impactful," he added.

Previous work with canines

The team has approached the UK government with the idea of using dogs to fight COVID-19. According to WHO, more than 590,000 people have been infected and more than 27,000 people have died globally when this report was published. 

The idea draws from the team's previous work, where they trained dogs to detect diseases such as cancer, Parkinson’s and bacterial infections: The dogs were taught to sniff samples in the training room and indicate which of them are infected. The team has also shown that dogs can tell if someone has a fever. 

The team will use the next six weeks to train and test the dogs' ability to sniff out the disease. 

 Dogs have up to 300 million olfactory receptors, helping them sense odor efficiently. (Getty Images)

What makes dogs so good at detecting odors?

Previous studies have shown that dogs are adept at detecting diseases, faring a lot better than human-made diagnostic tests. For instance, dogs can tell if a person's sugar level is falling, 15 or maybe 20 minutes before any devices, John Henning Schumann, a doctor, and a writer told NPR.

Because the dogs detect this in real-time, it gives people enough time to do what they need to do, he explained. What is more, by just sniffing people's socks, canines have been able to identify if people had malaria.  After months of training, they could tell if children who showed symptoms had malaria.

This is because dogs have up to 300 million olfactory receptors: proteins that sense odor. For comparison, humans have only six million of them. Also making them special is a part of their brain that is dedicated to processing information on smell. This part of the brain — olfactory cortex — occupies 12.5% of their brain mass. For humans, it is less than 1%.

When humans catch certain diseases, they tend to emit a particular odor, previous studies suggest. It is this odor that dogs can be trained to identify.

The UK team has their hopes on dogs to provide fast and effective means of detecting COVID-19 among people, especially among travelers at airports.

“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," said Professor Steve Lindsay at Durham University.

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