Durham funded Bio-detection dogs sniff Covid better than LFTs


Bio-detection dogs are now estimated to be able to detect cases of Covid-19 with 94% accuracy, outperforming the accuracy of Lateral Flow Tests. 

The study, which is not yet peer-reviewed, is being led by Durham University, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), and the charity Medical Detection Dogs. It has found that Covid-19 has a distinct smell that dogs can identify. 

“Our robust study shows the huge potential for dogs to help in the fight against COVID-19.”

Dr clare guest

The dogs can detect odours even from people who are asymptomatic, regardless of whether it is a high or low viral load. The canines, plus a confirmatory PCR test for those detected, is estimated to discover more than twice as many cases and prevent transmission.

Mathematical models suggest that two bio-detection dogs could successfully screen 300 plane passengers in around 30 minutes.

A recent review found that Lateral Flow Tests (LFTs) correctly identify on average 72% of symptomatic cases of the virus, and only 58% of asymptomatic cases. An investigation by Palatinate found that as of February 2021, 10,593 had been taken by Durham students during the 2020-21 academic year. Only 37 positive tests were returned during this period.

This term, Durham students are required to take two LFTs, 3-4 days and 24 hours in advance of attending events such as formals, College Balls and College Days, performances and communal games. Regular testing is also recommended in order to attend college bars and cafés.

Commenting on the study, Dr Clare Guest, Chief Scientific Officer at Medical Detection Dogs, said: “These fantastic results are further evidence that dogs are one of the most reliable biosensors for detecting the odour of human disease. Our robust study shows the huge potential for dogs to help in the fight against COVID-19.”

Professor James Logan, Head of the Department of Disease Control at LSHTM, who led the project, believes that the use of dogs “really could help us get back to doing the things we love sooner, safely and with less disruption, such as helping to reduce queuing times at border points or sporting events.”

The trials used over 3500 odour samples donated by members of the public and NHS staff. Of these samples, the dogs were able to detect 91% of positive cases, which would result in 2.2 times less transmission than the isolation of symptomatic individuals alone.

The next stage of the trial is for the dogs to screen real people in real world settings. 

It is hoped that the bio-detection dogs will act as a visual deterrent for those tempted to use false Covid-19 certificates, as with the use of explosive and drug detection dogs at public events. 

Professor James continues to add that the dogs could be used in future outbreaks for other diseases, and could be built into countries’ pandemic planning strategies. He says “we think dogs could be deployed quickly to screen people and help stop the outbreak when it first begins.”

Professor Steve Lindsay, from the Department of Biosciences at Durham University, adds: “Dogs could be a great way to screen a large number of people quickly and preventing COVID-19 from being re-introduced into the UK. Trained dogs could potentially act as a fast screening tool for travellers with those identified as infective confirmed with a lab test. This could make testing faster and save money.”

Image: Medical Detection Dogs via Twitter

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