For several years, Medical Detection Dogs, based in Milton Keynes, has been harnessing the canine ability to detect disease in its earliest stages.

As well as aiding diagnosis of a number of cancers and identifying malaria and pseudomonas, common bacteria that can cause infections, the dogs have also been trained to detect Parkinson’s – as we reported in 2018 here.

And now trials to test whether the dogs can detect COVID-19 in humans, even before symptoms appear, are getting underway.

These will establish whether they could be used as a potential new non-invasive, early warning measure to detect coronavirus in the future.

Researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) will carry out the first phase of a trial in collaboration with Medical Detection Dogs and Durham University, backed by £500,000 of government funding.

It aims to determine whether dogs are able to detect coronavirus in humans from odour samples.

It will investigate whether the dogs, a mixture of labradors and cocker spaniels, can be trained to detect coronavirus in people too, even if they are not showing symptoms.

Minister for innovation Lord Bethell said: “Bio-detection dogs already detect specific cancers and we believe this innovation might provide speedy results as part of our wider testing strategy.

“Accuracy is essential so this trial will tell us whether ‘COVID dogs’ can reliably detect the virus and stop it spreading.”

If successful, these dogs could provide a fast and non-invasive detection method.

The initial phase of the trial will see NHS staff in London hospitals collect odour samples from people who are infected with coronavirus and those who are uninfected.

The six bio detection dogs will then undergo thorough training to identify the virus from the samples.

More than 10 years of research gathered by Medical Detection Dogs has shown that the dogs, which could each screen up to 250 people per hour, can be trained to detect the odour of disease at the equivalent dilution of one teaspoon of sugar in two Olympic-sized swimming pools of water.

Lead researcher, Professor James Logan, of the Department of Disease Control at LSHTM, said: “Our previous work has shown that malaria has a distinctive odour, and with Medical Detection Dogs, we successfully trained dogs to accurately detect malaria.

“This, combined with the knowledge that respiratory disease can change body odour, makes us hopeful that the dogs can also detect COVID-19.

“If successful, this approach could revolutionise how we detect the virus, with the potential to screen high numbers of people.”

The dogs will only be deployed if backed by strong scientific evidence.

Dr Claire Guest, co-founder and CEO of Medical Detection Dogs, said: “We are delighted that the government has given us the opportunity to demonstrate that dogs can play a role in the fight against COVID-19. They have the potential to help by quickly screening people, which could be vital in the future

“We have already demonstrated our expertise in canine disease detection by successfully training dogs to detect diseases like cancer, Parkinson’s and malaria, and we apply that same science to train life-saving Medical Alert Assistance Dogs to detect odour changes in individuals caused by their health condition.

“We are sure our dogs will be able to find the odour of COVID-19 and we will then move into a second phase to test them in live situations, following which we hope to work with other agencies to train more dogs for deployment. We are incredibly proud that a dog’s nose could once again save many lives.”