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Can dogs detect COVID-19? U.K. researchers are studying if they can pick up the scent

A U.K. bio-detection dog sniffs a sample of the COVID-19 disease in a government handout photo.
A U.K. bio-detection dog sniffs a sample of the COVID-19 disease in a government handout photo. U.K. Department of Health and Social Care

Researchers in the United Kingdom have received government funding to determine if dogs can detect COVID-19 through scent, which could lead to a new form of tracing the spread of the disease.

Britain’s health department announced Saturday it has granted 500,000 pounds ($853,000 CAD) toward the research, which will be conducted by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Durham University and a British charity, Medical Detection Dogs.

Innovation Minister James Bethell said the clinical trial will help determine whether so-called “COVID dogs” can reliably detect the disease, and even stop it from spreading.

READ MORE: Robot ‘dog’ named Spot to help social distancing efforts at Singapore park

“Bio-detection dogs already detect specific cancers and we believe this innovation might provide speedy results as part of our wider testing strategy,” Bethell said in a statement.

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Samples of the odour of COVID-19 patients from London hospitals will be provided to six labradors and cocker spaniels, who will be trained to distinguish the smell from that of people who are not infected.

The goal is to make the dogs able to detect COVID-19 in people even if they aren’t showing any symptoms.

Study investigates how COVID-19 infections impact pets
Study investigates how COVID-19 infections impact pets

“If successful, this approach could revolutionize how we detect the virus, with the potential to screen high numbers of people,” said lead researcher James Logan, who heads the Department of Disease Control at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

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Researchers say an individual dog could check up to 250 people an hour and be used in public spaces and at airports.

According to Medical Detection Dogs, canines have already proven they can detect some forms of cancer through the same kind of training, along with Parkinson’s disease and malaria.

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READ MORE: Guelph, Ont., researchers study coronavirus infection in pets

The government says the dogs will only be deployed to detect COVID-19 “if backed by strong scientific evidence.”

The U.K. isn’t the only country that has turned to dogs in an effort to sniff out the novel coronavirus.

In the U.S., the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine launched a pilot training program late last month to study the same thing, using eight dogs over a three-week training period. That study has not received federal funding.

READ MORE: Can I get the coronavirus from my pet?

The school said the project could begin preliminary screening of live humans as soon as July.

French researchers from the National Veterinary School of Alfort, near Paris, are undertaking their own study, training eight dogs on the island of Corsica to detect the virus.

Dogs’ noses contain 300 million smell receptors, making their sense of smell about 50 times more powerful than that of humans.

A small number of dogs are also known to have contracted COVID-19, most likely from their owners, according to vets in the United States, the Netherlands and Hong Kong.

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—With files from Reuters