26th September 2020

Sniff of hope – Somerset NHS colleagues provide odour samples for COVID-19 detection dog trial

Staff at the Somerset NHS Foundation Trust are playing a vital role in a major trial to see if bio-detection dogs can sniff out coronavirus in humans.

The trial will determine whether dogs could be used as a new rapid, non-invasive diagnostic tool for the virus.

Before the dogs can be put through their paces, the researchers require samples for these super sniffers to carry out their work, and that’s where our local NHS staff come in.

The team of researchers are collecting samples from volunteer NHS staff and members of their households from 18 NHS trusts, who are due to be tested for COVID-19.

These staff members are likely to be being tested because they have symptoms, but could also be in a role that involves regular testing.

Somerset NHS Foundation Trust staff are coming forward to provide samples of breath and body odour by wearing a mask for three hours, and nylon socks and a t-shirt for 12 hours, as well as taking a swab test to identify if they are infected with COVID-19.

Deb Glennie, a simulation and human factors education fellow and anaesthetic sister at Somerset NHS Foundation Trust, is taking part in the research trial.

“I have a family member who is in the category of high risk, so I am very much aware how important it is to remain as safe as possible until we hopefully get a vaccine,” she said.

“I am amazed at the ability of dogs and how they complement mankind, using them for law enforcement, assistance and detection.

“If they can help us through the pandemic with early detection then the least I can do is provide the material.”

Once the samples have been collected, they are taken to the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), where they are being processed and analysed to identify compounds in odour that signify when someone is infected with COVID-19. They are then sent to the Medical Detection Dogs (MDD) training centre in Milton Keynes where the dogs will undergo training with the samples.

Having previously shown that dogs can sniff out malaria in people, LSHTM, MDD and Durham University are eager to start testing them out with COVID-19 samples.

They are dedicated to making sure the trial is thorough and safe for all involved, with the dogs undergoing intensive pre-training.

Should the trial be successful, these dogs could be deployed to key points of entry in the UK within six months to assist with the rapid screening on people travelling from abroad – with the potential of screening up to 250 people per hour.

Project lead Professor James Logan, Head of the Department of Disease Control at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, 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.”

Claire Guest, CEO and Co-Founder of Medical Detection Dogs, said: “Samples provided by NHS staff and their families will be key to the success of this trial and we’re very grateful to everyone who is supporting the project in this way.

“Our dogs have already successfully detected different types of cancer, Parkinson’s and malaria among other diseases which affect millions of people around the world. We are very proud that a dog’s nose could be part of a solution to find a fast, non-invasive way of diagnosing COVID-19 and make a tangible difference to any future pandemics. We look forward to sharing the news that the dogs can find the odour of the virus and the accuracy levels they achieve.”

Professor Steve Lindsay, from the Department of Biosciences at Durham University, said: “If we can show that our trained dogs can identify people carrying the virus, but who are not sick, it will be a game changer. We will then be able to scale-up the use of dogs at ports of entry to identify travellers entering the country with the virus. This could be very important to help prevent a second wave of the epidemic.”

The trial is led by the LSHTM in collaboration with the charity MDD and Durham University. The first phase is funded by the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC).