(CNN) — 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.”
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.
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.
“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.”