In the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, dogs might soon be on the front lines.

Researchers in the U.K. believe they can train dogs to detect COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. Dogs with a heightened sense of smell may be able to sniff out patients who have the disease even if they aren't showing symptoms.

Researchers from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) are working with Medical Detection Dogs and Durham University to prepare a team of canines to help diagnosis the virus quickly and in a hands-off way.

"It's early days for COVID-19 odor detection," James Logan, head of LSHTM's Department of Disease Control, said in a statement. "We do not know if COVID-19 has a specific odor yet, but we know that other respiratory diseases change our body odor, so there is a chance that it does. And if it does, dogs will be able to detect it. This new diagnostic tool could revolutionize our response to COVID-19."

The three groups recently collaborated to show that dogs can be trained to detect malaria.

"In principle, we're sure that dogs could detect COVID-19. We are now looking into how we can safely catch the odor of the virus from patients and present it to the dogs," said Dr. Claire Guest, CEO and co-founder of Medical Detection Dogs.

"The aim is that dogs will be able to screen anyone, including those who are asymptomatic, and tell us whether they need to be tested. This would be fast, effective and non-invasive and make sure the limited [National Health Service] testing resources are only used where they are really needed."

The power of a dog's nose

Specially trained canines have been taught to sniff out various conditions ranging from cancer to Parkinson's disease. Their noses are built for that kind of work. Dogs have about 300 million olfactory receptor cells in their noses, compared to only about 5 million in humans.

Dogs are being trained to search for COVID-19 in the same way they've been taught to hunt for these other diseases. They sniff samples in a training room and alert their handlers when they've found the virus. Researchers say dogs can be trained to discern slight changes in skin temperature, so there's the potential to detect if someone has a fever. The diagnosis would then be confirmed with a medical test.

The dogs must have a very acute sense of smell to be trained to sniff for medical conditions.

"We have four or five dogs ready to go into training right now," Logan told CityLab. "If we were able to deploy them within a month or two, we could screen maybe 4,000 to 5,000 people per day. In the short-term, there are some locations where dogs might be appropriate to use, such as screening medical or care staff, or people going into schools and other community areas."

The team expects the training to cost about £1 million ($1.2 million U.S.). As of April 8, about $3,800 had been raised in crowdfunding to help support the project. They hope to have the dogs trained in the next six to eight weeks.

The dogs will not come in direct contact with people, but will only sniff the air around them, according to Medical Detection Dogs. Infectious disease experts and human and animal health organizations agree there's no evidence the pets spread the virus to people. There have been a handful of cases where dogs, a cat and a tiger tested positive for the virus, but in all instances researchers believe the animals contracted the virus from people.

"If the research is successful, we could use COVID-19 detection dogs at airports at the end of the epidemic to rapidly identify people carrying the virus," said Professor Steve Lindsay from Durham University. "This would help prevent the re-emergence of the disease after we have brought the present epidemic under control."

Mary Jo DiLonardo covers a wide range of topics focused on nature, health, science and anything that helps make the world a better place.

Can dogs sniff out COVID-19?
Researchers are hoping to train dogs to detect people with COVID-19, even if they don't have symptoms.