The government has pledged a specialist team of researchers over £500,000 to support research into whether bio-detection dogs could be used to detect coronavirus in humans.
Plans to begin intensively training six dogs in the hopes that they could detect the virus was first announced by Medical Detection Dogs in April.
The charity believes the dogs could provide a “rapid, non-invasive” diagnosis of the virus, and has been working alongside the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and Durham University to facilitate the programme.
In the first phase of the trial, disease control experts from the LSHTM, alongside the charity and university, are aiming to determine whether dogs are able to detect coronavirus in humans from odour samples.
This team previously worked together to demonstrate that dogs can detect odours from humans with a malaria infection with “extremely high accuracy”, and the new trial will look at whether dogs can be trained to detect coronavirus, even if people are asymptomatic.
If the trial is successful, the first set of dogs could be deployed to key points of entry into the UK within six months to assist with the rapid screening of people travelling from abroad. It is thought that the medical detection dogs could potentially screen up to 250 people per hour each.
Professor James Logan, lead researcher for the work and head of the department of disease control 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.”
He added: “I would like to thank the UK government for their support of this pioneering research through this funding. We’re excited to do this trial, and confirm whether these bio detection dogs can be used to screen for Covid-19 at ports of entry such as airports.
“If successful, this approach could revolutionise how we diagnose the virus, leading to the rapid screening of high numbers of people, which could be profoundly impactful and help get our lives back to some sort of normality.”
Dr Claire Guest, co-founder and CEO of Medical Detection Dogs, said: “We are delighted that the government has given us the opportunity to demonstrate that dogs can play a role in the fight against Covid-19.
“They have the potential to help by quickly screening people, which will be vital as the country moves out of lockdown. Hopefully this will prevent a second peak and enable precious NHS resources to be used where most needed.”
Professor Steve Lindsay, from the department of Biosciences at Durham University, said: “We’re absolutely delighted to be awarded this funding so we can start this important research.
“If we can show that our trained dogs can identify people carrying the virus, but who are not sick, it will be a game changer. This will be important to prevent a second wave of the epidemic.”