Photo: Penn Vet’s Working Dog Center

PHILADELPHIA, USA: Researchers are enlisting all the help they can get, including the use of dogs, to test and screen for the Covid-19 virus.

A pilot training programme utilising scent detection dogs has been the focus of a research initiative at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine (Penn Vet) in the United States. Led by Dr Cynthia M Otto, director of the Working Dog Center, eight Labrador Retrievers are being trained to sniff out the coronavirus.

With up to 300 million smell receptors – compared to six million in humans – dogs are well-positioned to aid in disease detection. This pioneering study – that will explore the sensitivity and specificity of scent – sets the stage for dogs to be a force multiplier in the mission to detect Covid-19, particularly among asymptomatic patients, or hospital or business environments where testing is most challenging.  

Penn Vet is using the Labradors, over three weeks in July this year, through a process called odour imprinting. The dogs will be exposed to Covid-19 positive saliva and urine samples in a laboratory setting. Once the dogs learn the odour, the investigators will document that the dogs can discriminate between Covid-19 positive and Covid-19 negative samples, establishing the platform for testing to determine if the dogs can identify infected people. 

Dr Cynthia Otto with Moxie | Photo: Sabina Louise Pierce

“Scent detection dogs can accurately detect low concentrations of volatile organic compounds, otherwise known as VOCs, associated with various diseases such as ovarian cancer, bacterial infections, and nasal tumours. These VOCs are present in human blood, saliva, urine or breath,” said Cynthia Otto, DVM, PhD, professor of Working Dog Sciences and Sports Medicine and director of Penn Vet’s Working Dog Center.

Labrador Retrievers were chosen as they have been selected for generations for their olfactory performance, hunting, and behavioural aspects.

Ranked among the top ten veterinary schools worldwide, the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine (Penn Vet) is a global leader in veterinary education, research, and clinical care.