Asher is eccentric and inquisitive. He loves an audience, likes keeping busy, and howls to be let through doors. He is a six-year-old working Cocker Spaniel, who, with five other furry colleagues, has now been trained to sniff body odor samples from humans to detect COVID-19 infections.
As the Delta variant and other new versions of the SARS-CoV-2 virus emerge, public health agencies are once again recommending masking while employers contemplate mandatory vaccination. While PCR tests remain the "gold standard" of COVID-19 tests, they can take hours to flag infections. To accelerate the process, scientists are turning to a new testing tool: sniffer dogs.
At the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), researchers deployed Asher and five other trained dogs to test sock samples from 200 asymptomatic, infected individuals and 200 healthy individuals. In May, they published the findings of the yearlong study in a preprint, concluding that dogs could identify COVID-19 infections with a high degree of accuracy – they could correctly identify a COVID-positive sample up to 94% of the time and a negative sample up to 92% of the time. The paper has yet to be peer-reviewed.
"Dogs can screen lots of people very quickly – 300 people per dog per hour. This means they could be used in places like airports or public venues like stadiums and maybe even workplaces," says James Logan, who heads the Department of Disease Control at LSHTM, adding that canines can also detect variants of SARS-CoV-2. "We included samples from two variants and the dogs could still detect them."
Detection dogs have been one of the most reliable biosensors for identifying the odor of human disease. According to Gemma Butlin, a spokesperson of Medical Detection Dogs, the UK-based charity that trained canines for the LSHTM study, the olfactory capabilities of dogs have been deployed to detect malaria, Parkinson's disease, different types of cancers, as well as pseudomonas, a type of bacteria known to cause infections in blood, lungs, eyes, and other parts of the human body.
COVID-19 has a distinctive smell — a result of chemicals known as volatile organic compounds released by infected body cells, which give off an odor "fingerprint."
"It's estimated that the percentage of a dog's brain devoted to analyzing odors is 40 times larger than that of a human," says Butlin. "Humans have around 5 million scent receptors dedicated to smell. Dogs have 350 million and can detect odors at parts per trillion. To put this into context, a dog can detect a teaspoon of sugar in a million gallons of water: two Olympic-sized pools full."
According to LSHTM scientists, COVID-19 has a distinctive smell — a result of chemicals known as volatile organic compounds released by infected body cells, which give off an odor "fingerprint." Other studies, too, have revealed that the SARS-CoV-2 virus has a distinct olfactory signature, detectable in the urine, saliva, and sweat of infected individuals. Humans can't smell the disease in these fluids, but dogs can.
"Our research shows that the smell associated with COVID-19 is at least partly due to small and volatile chemicals that are produced by the virus growing in the body or the immune response to the virus or both," said Steve Lindsay, a public health entomologist at Durham University, whose team collaborated with LSHTM for the study. He added, "There is also a further possibility that dogs can actually smell the virus, which is incredible given how small viruses are."
In April this year, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and collaborators published a similar study in the scientific journal PLOS One, revealing that detection dogs could successfully discriminate between urine samples of infected and uninfected individuals. The accuracy rate of canines in this study was 96%. Similarly, last December, French scientists found that dogs were 76-100% effective at identifying individuals with COVID-19 when presented with sweat samples.
Grandjean Dominique, a professor at France's National Veterinary School of Alfort, who led the French study, said that the researchers used two types of dogs — search and rescue dogs, as they can sniff sweat, and explosive detection dogs, because they're often used at airports to find bomb ingredients. Dogs may very well be as good as PCR tests, said Dominique, but the goal, he added, is not to replace these tests with canines.
In France, the government gave the green light to train hundreds of disease detection dogs and deploy them in airports. "They will act as mass pre-test, and only people who are positive will undergo a PCR test to check their level of infection and the kind of variant," says Dominique. He thinks the dogs will be able to decrease the amount of PCR testing and potentially save money.
Since the accuracy rate for bio-detection dogs is fairly high, scientists think they could prove to be a quick diagnosis and mass screening tool, especially at ports, airports, train stations, stadiums, and public gatherings. Countries like Finland, Thailand, UAE, Italy, Chile, India, Australia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, and Mexico are already training and deploying canines for COVID-19 detection. The dogs are trained to sniff the area around a person, and if they find the odor of COVID-19 they will sit or stand back from an individual as a signal that they've identified an infection.
While bio-detection dogs seem promising for cheap, large-volume screening, many of the studies that have been performed to date have been small and in controlled environments. The big question is whether this approach work on people in crowded airports, not just samples of shirts and socks in a lab.
"The next step is 'real world' testing where they [canines] are placed in airports to screen people and see how they perform," says Anna Durbin, professor of international health at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "Testing in real airports with lots of passengers and competing scents will need to be done."
According to Butlin of Medical Detection Dogs, scalability could be a challenge. However, scientists don't intend to have a dog in every waiting room, detecting COVID-19 or other diseases, she said.
"Dogs are the most reliable bio sensors on the planet and they have proven time and time again that they can detect diseases as accurately, if not more so, than current technological diagnostics," said Butlin. "We are learning from them all the time and what their noses know will one day enable the creation an 'E-nose' that does the same job – imagine a day when your mobile phone can tell you that you are unwell."