Schools, hospitals and businesses in Britain are considering the use of Covid sniffer dogs as a novel way to detect the virus alongside more conventional testing methods.
A UK study published in May this year by an academic consortium found that canines have a better record at picking up the presence of Covid-19 in people than lateral flow tests, with a level of accuracy not far behind “gold standard” PCR tests.
Interest from organisations around the country in whether specially trained dogs could be deployed to detect Covid at entrances to nightclubs, pubs, conferences, schools, hospitals and airports has been growing.
Amazon Studios, the US production and distribution company, recently used trained dogs to screen more than 200 actors and crew on the London shoot of a feature film.
In autumn, the British government held talks with the consortium about using Covid sniffer dogs at the COP26 climate summit to check thousands of daily visitors to the Glasgow event.
In the end, ministers decided not to go ahead because of concerns about potential “cultural sensitivities” towards the animals among the delegates from roughly 200 countries.
Other countries have also been trialing Covid sniffer dogs. Last year Helsinki airport ran a pilot, while more recently, police in Dubai trained 38 sniffer dogs to detect the virus, according to Reuters.
James Logan, professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who conducted the study in partnership with the charity Medical Detection Dogs and Durham University, said different cancers and diseases have their own “odour signature”, which can be detected by gun breeds such as Labradors and cocker spaniels.
“We are not saying dogs could replace LFTs and PCRs but they could in some situations be an additional tool,” he said. “Two dogs could screen an entire aircraft with over 300 people as they come off the plane in just 30 minutes.”
Claire Guest, chief executive of Medical Detection Dogs, said: “A large number of people and organisations are interested. We have been given a fantastic opportunity for British UK innovation [with] . . . final phase [trials] in workplaces . . . some NHS partners, there is interest from schools.”
Covid-19 has a “very, very unique odour”, which means the animals do not struggle to detect it even in a crowd of people.
“They can do this incredibly rapidly, it’s a 0.5 second sniff to tell if someone has Covid,” she said.
The study, part-funded by the health department, used six dogs to sniff over 3,500 odour samples. The animals detected the presence of the Sars-Cov-2 virus with an accuracy of between 82 and 94 per cent.
That is less effective than PCR tests, which have 97 per cent sensitivity, but more successful than lateral flow tests which, on average, detect 72 per cent of symptomatic cases, and 58 per cent of asymptomatic ones.
Unlike an LFT, however, the dogs did have a substantial number of false positives, when people are wrongly identified as having Covid. But the report authors argued that forcing a small number to take PCRs for verification was less disruptive than testing an entire group.
Having done the first study in a controlled environment, the consortium is pushing ahead with live trials with as many as 20 dogs.
“We have been in discussions with a number of organisations for a while, including local government, not just in the UK, airlines, airports and workplaces,” said Logan.
Amazon Studios used two dogs for several weeks, alongside conventional tests, during the filming of The People We Hate At The Wedding.
“It worked really well, we used them to test supporting artists who were going to be in a close proximity to lead actors,” said Rich Gold, Covid compliance officer at Amazon Studios, noting that using dogs was also a more sustainable way than ordering plastic tests.
“We’re dealing with an industry where you have got to be away on the move every day to different locations and if one person comes down with Covid, it can shut down a whole multimillion dollar production.
“Having the dogs, is a quick, easy, uninvasive way to test,” he added.