With their incredible sense of smell, super sniffer dogs could prove to be heroes in the fight against the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19. A new study out of Finland has revealed that man’s best friend could help save thousands of lives.
A pilot study at the University of Helsinki saw dogs trained as medical diagnostic assistants taught to recognize the previously unknown odor signature of the COVID-19 disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Within just weeks, the first dogs were able to accurately distinguish urine samples from patients infected with SARS-CoV-2 from samples of healthy individuals.
While it is still unclear which substances in urine produce the characteristic COVID-19 odor, experts assume that since SARS-CoV-2 not only attacks the lungs but also causes damage to blood vessels, kidneys, and other organs, the patients’ urine odor also changes.
“We have solid experience in training disease-related scent detection dogs. It was fantastic to see how fast the dogs took to the new smell,” said principal investigator of the study Anna Hielm-Björkman. “We are now preparing a randomized, double-blind study in which the dogs will sniff a larger number of patient samples. Only then will the scent tests be used in clinical practice.”
The very promising findings from Finland are not limited to the land of a thousand lakes either; fellow researchers from the German Assistance Dog Center (TARSQ) have also benefited from the Finnish results.
“No one could tell us with certainty whether training with the aggressive virus is dangerous or not for humans and dogs. We wanted to gather more information first before we started training because the German virologists advised us against it – after all, so little is known about the virus so far,” explained Luca Barrett from TARSQ.
Trials are also taking place in the United Kingdom. The UK Government has given Researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, in collaboration with charity Medical Detection Dogs and the UK’s Durham University, over $600,000 to put towards the research. Claire Guest, the CEO and founder of Medical Detection Dogs, said six dogs – two yellow Labradors, one white Labradoodle, and three Cocker Spaniels – will be the first trainees. Dubbed “The Super Six” the pooches are led by Asher, a five-year-old cocker spaniel and an experienced professional in his field.
It’s hoped the trials will produce highly skilled coronavirus snufflers who could prove invaluable in helping doctors in hospitals diagnose Covid-19 cases, assist in situations where there is a high risk of infection (for example, people attending church congregations, sporting events, funerals, and weddings), and be employed at airports to give people entering and leaving a country the sniff over.
“While this new research is a huge step forward, it comes as no surprise that dogs have once again stepped up to help humans,” said Network for Animals’ executive director David Barritt. “For centuries, dogs and their amazing noses have helped us in countless ways, using their senses to detect substances such as explosives, illegal drugs, wildlife smuggling, blood currency, and contraband electronics such as illicit mobile phones. Dogs have also been found to detect certain diseases like Parkinson’s and cancer, and even superbugs like Malaria.
That is because dogs devote lots of brainpower to interpreting odors and can smell anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 times better than we can.”