Virus-Sniffing Dogs Could Help Detect COVID-19 in Asymptomatic Patients

Dogs are being trained to sniff out the virus.
Dogs are being trained to sniff out the virus. / Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Disease-sniffing dogs have been recruited into the fight against the novel coronavirus. As The Philadelphia Inquirer reports, the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine is training eight Labrador retrievers to recognize the virus and identify it in patients.

Before they can supplement traditional testing, the dogs first must undergo something called "odor imprinting" in a laboratory setting. Likely starting in early May, the dogs will spend three weeks smelling saliva and urine samples from people who have tested positive for COVID-19. Teaching the dogs the scent is just the first step in the process. Once their snouts have been exposed to the new coronavirus, the dogs must show they can distinguish between COVID-19-positive and COVID-19-negative samples. They will also ultimately need to detect the virus in live patients—even those without symptoms.

The smelling talents of certain dog breeds have been applied to a variety of areas. Dogs have been trained to sniff out malaria, bedbugs, and even stolen art. In the case of COVID-19, UPenn researchers aren't sure if the dogs will learn to identify the actual virus or the body's response to it. In the preliminary stages of training, the labs will be working with inactive coronavirus samples, and when the dogs are eventually exposed to it in people, they will be closely monitored. There's only been one reported case of COVID-19 in a domestic dog in the U.S. so far.

The trained canines won't be a full replacement for current tests, but they could offer a noninvasive alternative in some situations. Just as there are dogs that can sniff out explosives, airports could eventually enlist dogs to help stop infected passengers from boarding airplanes. Businesses and hospitals are other places that could benefit from having a way to screen for asymptomatic carriers without individually testing them. Virus-sniffing dogs could be deployed in real-life scenarios as early as July 2020.

[h/t The Philadelphia Enquirer]