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Covid-19 Scent Dogs

A: Not for current challenges

Sniffer dogs are used worldwide in industry for the detection of drugs, explosives and even items as specific as USB sticks. They are also used for medical detection, detecting cancers and malaria in addition to providing individuals with pre-warning of epileptic seizures and hypoglycemia.

Dogs have now been proven by the University of Helsinki to be able to detect SARS-CoV-2 in a laboratory environment using urine. They can detect the virus up to 5 days before symptoms emerge and can differentiate between the virus and other respiratory conditions.

 The sample size of 2 dogs was admittedly small,  but the results extremely impressive. Other teams globally are exploring the use of saliva and sweat (collected via armpit pads) when training the dogs. 

What is not currently being explored and funded is moving the dogs from detecting the virus in a laboratory environment using samples, into a real life scenario detecting the virus on people. This is not as easy as it sounds and requires trainers well versed in the training of operational dogs.

My proposal is to train operational sniffer dogs to carry out both active and passive searches in a medical environment such as a hospital or care home. An active search would involve the dog scanning an area actively looking for the scent of the virus, for example a hospital ward thought to be virus free. A passive search would involve the dog moving along a line of people, for example a drive through facility testing key workers or just staff simply turning up for their shift.

The use of sniffer dogs has massive potential, providing an IMMEDIATE yes/no answer, in addition to detecting people who may be pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic. This would be exceptionally valuable in identifying infected key workers and preventing infected patients being returned to care homes, to give just two examples.

We also believe it will be possible for dogs to detect cytokines, adding a further layer of benefit.

We have on our team the most qualified scent trainers in the UK, both academically, in medical detection and training operational scent dogs, with our head trainer having 30 years distinguished service as a dog handler/trainer in the metropolitan police.

Our group has the passion and expertise. What we do  not have are samples to train our dogs with. Once trained, we would only need fresh samples every 3-4 months to check the dogs were performing as expected with double blind testing.

Our dogs would be capable of being ready to work operationally within 6-8 weeks and it is relatively easy to scale up training of additional dogs.

There is one proposed study in the UK (possibly obsolete now the results are back from Helsinki), but the sample size is small and the experience of the group is in training medical detection dogs for long term scientific studies NOT operational dogs - which is very different from what we are proposing. 

Operational sniffer dogs would not only be useful within the health sector, but would be of use in airports, prisons, railway stations or scanning crowds such as at football matches when lockdown is relaxed.

Given the 30% rate of false negative results with RT-PCR, in addition to the minimum processing time of 24 hours (often taking up to 5 days for such results to be forwarded to the person being tested) we need faster, more accurate testing. We believe sniffer dogs offer a viable addition to current testing methods that should be seriously explored with the view of producing operational dogs, particularly now Helsinki has confirmed that dogs can smell the virus.

 Until training samples are made available to sufficiently qualified groups such as our own, no further work on producing operational dogs is possible in the UK. Given the potential operational dogs have for saving lives, we believe the UK should be training them now, not lagging months behind the rest of the world in developing innovative, viable testing solutions.


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Bev Matthews Jun 8, 2020

Hello Nicola, thank you very much for your submission, we note that a grant has been awarded and looking forward to hearing more about this work progressing.

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Bev Matthews Jun 8, 2020

Status label added: A: Not for current challenges

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