Could we train dogs to sniff out COVID-19?
Some researchers think so — and they’re hoping to enlist canines in the fight against the novel coronavirus.
Dogs are well-known for their special superpower: a keen sense of smell. In fact, dogs have up to 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses, compared to about 6 million in humans. A big part of a dog’s brain devotes itself to analyzing smells.
Over the years, humans used dogs to sniff out game animals, explosive charges, pests, and even illicit substances.
But did you know that dogs also have the ability to sniff out deadly diseases and other ailments? It’s true! Those finely tuned noses can detect malaria, diabetes, certain types of cancer and Parkinson’s disease.
So, dogs can smell other diseases. Is it possible that they could use their snouts to detect the novel coronavirus by scent?
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania think so. They’re testing a pack of eight Labrador retrievers to see if they can detect an odor unique to SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19.
If they are successful, this approach could offer a quick, non-invasive way to screen people in businesses, hospitals, airports, train stations, or ports of entry.
Researchers are hopeful that the dogs will be successful. Especially based on previous research from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LHSTM), where they studied dogs’ ability to sniff out malaria.
“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, Department Head of Disease Control at LSHTM.
“Viruses do, in fact, have specific odors,” said Cynthia M. Otto, Director of the Working Dog Center at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary medicine. “It’s possible that this specific odor may be due [to the] virus itself, a compound produced by the virus after infecting cells, or a hybrid of these two possibilities.”
The Labradors will train for three weeks using a process called odor imprinting. Dogs will be exposed to saliva or urine collected from COVID-19 positive hospital patients. They will be rewarded with food when they pick out the correct samples. They will then be tested to see if they can pick out COVID-19 positive individuals.
If the dogs can reliably identify people infected with the virus, they could be a beneficial tool. Dogs could aid in early detection of cases, identifying asymptomatic carriers, and helping in places where tests are in short supply.