Dogs Are Being Trained To Sniff Out COVID-19 With Stunning Accuracy

This gives "man's best friend" a whole new meaning.

Getting tested for COVID-19 isn’t exactly the most comfortable thing in the world. The viral test can determine whether you have a current infection — you can get one at your nearest assessment centre — but it requires a pretty invasive process, during which you get a swab shoved up your nose.

“That test is uncomfortable,” the one and only Drake said to his dad, on Instagram Live, after getting his own done. (The results came back negative.) “They put that Q-tip all inside your thoughts and s―t.”

The only other way you can get tested for the coronavirus right now is through bloodwork, but even this antibody test can’t necessarily determine whether you have a current infection. It’s more accurate at revealing prior infections.

Researchers are well aware of how unpleasant it is to get a foreign object planted in your nasal cavity, and they’ve been trying to find a more agreeable way to test people for COVID-19—one that doesn’t require putting a Q-tip into our thoughts. And as it turns out, there might be a rather sweet answer to the decidedly not sweet question: dogs.

Yes, the rumours are true: researchers in the U.K. have been training dogs to detect the virus — solely off of scent.

“When you have a disease, your body odour changes,” James Logan, head of the Department of Disease Control at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told CBC News Kids. “And dogs are an excellent example of being able to detect smells and also learn those smells. That’s what we’re aiming to do with COVID-19.”

After about eight to ten weeks of training, the trained Cocker Spaniels and Labradors would be able to identify infected people just by walking past them. If they smelled the virus, they would stop in their tracks and look toward the person they think is infected. (This eliminates the wait time it takes for you to get back your results from the assessment centres.)

Researchers think this would be especially useful for people who are asymptomatic, and hope to deploy the dogs in public places like airports, train stations and stadiums. And there would be no fear of transmitting the virus to the dogs, since, unlike cats, they’re immune to contracting COVID-19.

Dogs would be able to detect COVID-19 through body odour, which makes sense, considering they can also be trained to sniff out bombs, drugs, and various human diseases.
Dogs would be able to detect COVID-19 through body odour, which makes sense, considering they can also be trained to sniff out bombs, drugs, and various human diseases.

Testing is happening elsewhere, too — but not in Canada

It’s not just the U.K. that’s testing this out.

While researchers in London have taken the eight-to-ten week training approach, dogs in Germany seem capable of doing the job after just a few days of training. A study conducted by the University Veterinary Medicine Hannover found dogs from the armed forces, who were trained for five days, were able to identify the coronavirus with a 94 per cent success rate after sniffing the saliva of more than 1,000 people, both healthy and infected.

“We think this works because metabolic processes in the body of a diseased patient is completely changed,” professor Dr. Maren Von Kockritz-Blickwede said in a YouTube video about the project. “We think that the dogs are able to detect a specific smell of the metabolic changes that occur in those patients.”

Dogs have an excellent sense of smell, obviously, that far surpasses the senses we possess as human beings. It’s not just that they can smell other dogs by sniffing trees outside. Their noses are about 1,000 times more sensitive than ours, and they’ve been trained to detect about a dozen human diseases, like malaria, prostate cancer, diabetes and Parkinson’s disease, so it makes sense that they’d be able to detect COVID-19.

Though Logan’s research team in London is working with countries around the world to see if they might also be trained to detect coronavirus, CBC Kids News checked with Health Canada and found the country hasn’t yet started to train our furry friends to sniff out the infections.

So until then, we’ll have to deal with the discomfort of getting our thoughts swabbed by Q-tips.