Trials are taking place in the UK to see whether specially trained airport sniffer dogs could detect Covid-19 in travelers, even before symptoms appear.
Sniffer dogs are already a common sight in airports – usually, they’re looking out for drugs, weapons or other contraband.
But specially trained dogs have also been trained to detect infections and diseases, including cancer, malaria and Parkinson’s disease.
Researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, in collaboration with charity Medical Detection Dogs and the UK’s Durham University, say respiratory diseases change body odor, and they reckon trained dogs will be able to pick up this shift on Covid sufferers.
The UK government has given the team more than £500,000 (over $600,000) to put towards the research.
This preliminary trial has recruited six dogs, dubbed “The Super Six” – they’re all either labradors or cocker spaniels.
Face masks and nylons
Professor James Logan, lead researcher on the project, and head of the department of disease control at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine is confident the trial will yield results.
“It builds up on years of research that we’ve already done as a team to demonstrate that people who have a malaria infection have a distinctive body odor and we’ve shown that dogs can be trained to detect that with very high accuracy,” says Logan.
So what’s the training process like?
Professor Steve Lindsay, a public health entomologist at the UK’s Durham University says the first step is collecting human odor samples – both for people who’ve tested positive for Covid-19, and people who don’t have the disease.
They’re getting subjects to wear face masks for a few hours. Then the masks are passed on to the dogs, and used to help the animals distinguish between different scents.
It’s not just face masks that are being used – they’re also getting subjects to wear nylon socks.
“Which is a bit strange,” admits Lindsay. “But we’ve known from our previous experience that this is a really good way of collecting odors from people and it’s such an easy way to do it.”
Dogs are known to be able to contract Covid-19, but there is no evidence that the virus can spread from dog to humans. The team at Medical Detection Dogs assure CNN that the dogs are well looked after and will be kept safe from infection.
“Our dogs will be trained on a dead virus and then have no contact with the individuals they are screening but will sniff the air around the person,” says representative Gemma Butlin.
“The dogs will only be permitted to be touched by the handler, which therefore means there will be very low risk of spread of the virus from the dog to their handler or to the people they live with.”
Kickstarting the travel industry
Researchers believe that if the trial’s successful, it could be a way to kickstart the travel industry, which has ground to a halt since the start of the pandemic.
It could eliminate the need for quarantines for air travelers.
Researchers hope the first set of dogs could be deployed to key entry points, like airports, in the UK within the next six months. Each dog could potentially screen up to 250 people per hour.
“The basic idea is we can screen travelers innocently coming into this country who may be carrying Covid-19, detect those people and isolate them from the rest of the community,” says Lindsay.
There has been much discussion about the best ways to decrease the chance of Covid-19 infection during travel and airport transit. The US Transportation Security Administration is working on plans to check temperatures at some American airports, while Las Vegas airport announced on Twitter that it had installed vending machines loaded with personal protective equipment.
At Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA), officials are trialing a live operation of CLeanTech, a full-body disinfection booth
Dr Claire Guest, CEO and co-founder of Medical Detection Dogs, said in a statement that she thinks the dogs’ ability to quickly screen people will be invaluable as the UK eases lockdown measures.
“Hopefully this will prevent a second peak and enable precious NHS resources to be used where most needed,” said Guest. “We are incredibly proud that a dog’s nose could once again save many lives.”
CNN’s Andrea Diaz contributed to this report
Correction: An earlier version of this story did not reflect the known evidence that dogs are able to contract Covid-19.