A team of 25 volunteers from University College Hospital (UCLH) in Euston are allowing trained “bio-detection dogs” to smell their socks and T-shirts to see if they can detect whether a person has the virus.
They are among 3,500 NHS staff nationwide signed up in the trial.
The £500,000 government-sponsored project is being led by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), charity Medical Detection Dogs and Durham University.
Trained dogs have been shown to be able to detect Parkinson’s disease, malaria and some cancers, while recent research has suggested that viruses may have specific odours.
If the trial is successful, the dogs could offer a non-invasive and rapid method of virus detection at UK entry points such as airports. LSHTM has said trained dogs could be deployed within six months, potentially screening up to 250 people per hour.
Frontline NHS staff are ideal sample-providers for the clever “super sniffers” as many undergo frequent Covid-19 testing, according to the trial leaders.
The NHS workers get tested regularly and sometimes test positive, even if they are asymptomatic. The UCLH volunteers will be asked to provide “samples of their breath and body odour” by wearing a mask for three hours, and nylon socks and a t-shirt for twelve hours, to collect their body odour which will be analysed and used in dog training.
Each sweat-filled item will be analysed to identify “compounds in odour that will signify when someone is infected with Covid-19”, before being sent to the MDD centre in Milton Keynes.
Project lead Professor James Logan, Head of the Department of Disease Control at LSHTM, thanked all NHS volunteers.
He said: “A huge thank you to NHS staff and their families who are supporting this vital research. If successful, this trial could revolutionise how we diagnose the virus, leading to the rapid screening of high numbers of people, even if asymptomatic, helping return our lives back to some sort of normality.”
Dubai Airport introduced a trial of “coronavirus-sniffing dogs” back in early August. The UAE claimed its police dogs “achieved approximately 92 per cent in overall accuracy” in identifying Covid-19 samples. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have also been testing whether Labrador retrievers – the breed frequently used as guide dogs – can sniff out the virus.