Corona sniffer dogs backed by Camilla to get us moving again

Meet Asher and pals! The Covid-19 sniffer dogs backed by Camilla and now with £500million in Government funding to get us all moving again

  • Six dogs are learning how to sniff out and identify people with coronavirus
  • The scheme has been backed with £500,000 worth of government money 
  • The Duchess of Cornwall is the patron of the charity Medical Detection Dogs
  • When they’ve finished training the dogs could screen 1,000 people an hour  
  • Here’s how to help people impacted by Covid-19

Bright-eyed and mischievous, Asher the cocker spaniel looks every bit the family pet. 

Right now, he’s a little scruffier than normal thanks to a ‘Covid-19 hair cut’ from a loving owner unable to get to the grooming salon during the lockdown.

There is no clue at all that Asher could soon be Britain’s secret weapon in defeating Covid-19. 

The five-year-old has already shown how thousands of lives could be saved by successfully detecting malaria thanks to his remarkable sense of smell.

Now, along with five younger dogs, he is learning to sniff out people infected with the coronavirus, even if they aren’t displaying any symptoms.

Asher is pictured above in training. Right now, he’s a little scruffier than normal thanks to a ‘Covid-19 hair cut’ from a loving owner unable to get to the grooming salon during the lockdown

This pioneering scheme is a collaboration between the charity Medical Detection Dogs – which has the Duchess of Cornwall as its patron – the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Durham University.

It is being taken so seriously that on Friday it was awarded £500,000 of Government funding in the hope that specially trained Covid sniffer dogs could be deployed at airports, train stations and other transport hubs within ten weeks.

Last night, the Duchess praised the initiative, saying: ‘Having been the proud patron of Medical Detection Dogs for six years, I have every faith that these brilliant dogs will achieve remarkable results in the fight against Covid-19.’

Dr Claire Guest, Asher’s owner (and hairdresser) and co-founder of the charity, has previously successfully taught dogs to detect malaria, Parkinson’s disease and cancer. 

She says that when fully trained, a team of four Covid-19 bio-detection dogs, working with sufficient breaks, could screen 1,000 people an hour – helping to reduce the risk of fresh infection brought by travellers from abroad. 

The aim is to train the dogs to detect travellers who are carrying the virus without knowing it because they have yet to develop symptoms – and might never do so.

‘This could be a game-changer in fighting Covid-19 because each dog can make a detection in just half a second,’ says Dr Guest.

Some countries are using thermometer guns and thermal imaging in crowded areas such as airports, and experimental temperature checks will soon be introduced at Heathrow. 

But this approach can miss infections in their earliest stages.

Asher is being trained alongside fellow cocker spaniels Norman and Jasper, labradors Storm and Star, and Digby, a labradoodle. Together they are known as the ‘Super Six’.

‘They may have brown eyes, fluffy coats and waggy tails, but they are sophisticated bio-sensors,’ continues Dr Guest.

‘A labrador, for example, has 350 million sensors in its nose compared to just five million in a human nose. 

The aim is to train the dogs to detect travellers who are carrying the virus without knowing it because they have yet to develop symptoms – and might never do so

‘The science and evolution that goes into their sense of smell is quite remarkable. At the moment there’s nothing that can match it.

‘This work, we believe, is hugely important because as people start to move around and we go back to some sort of normality, these dogs can save lives by helping to prevent a second spike of the virus.

‘It could also help us map where the disease is coming from. Using detector dogs at airports could help establish that 50 per cent of passengers on a plane from destination A have the virus, whereas only five per cent of passengers from destination B do.’

Digby, above, is one of the medical detection dogs. So powerful is the dogs’ sense of smell, they are capable of detecting the odour of one teaspoon of sugar diluted in two Olympic-sized swimming pools of water

The aim is to train the dogs to detect travellers who are carrying the virus without knowing it because they have yet to develop symptoms – and might never do so.

So powerful is the dogs’ sense of smell, they are capable of detecting the odour of one teaspoon of sugar diluted in two Olympic-sized swimming pools of water.

The research is being led by Professor James Logan, head of disease control at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who is collecting virus samples from London hospitals.

NHS workers – a mixture of those who have tested positive for coronavirus without exhibiting symptoms and those who have tested negative – have been asked to wear a pair of nylon socks for 12 hours and a face mask for three hours.

These items are then sealed in special envelopes and sent to the dog training centre in Milton Keynes, where they are kept for several hours until the virus is no longer active.

Asher and his fellow dogs will then sniff the socks and masks to try to distinguish a unique Covid-19 scent. 

This pioneering scheme is a collaboration between the charity Medical Detection Dogs – which has the Duchess of Cornwall as its patron – the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Durham University

Even their human handlers will be kept ‘blind’ as to which sample is positive or negative so they cannot inadvertently tip the dogs off. 

‘We know other diseases carry distinct and specific odours, so the whole premise is that dogs can learn the smell of Covid-19,’ says Prof Logan.

‘We can do this within a couple of months. The good thing about it is that it’s non-invasive. We don’t need a blood sample and we can screen a lot of people very quickly. 

‘The key is we can catch people who are asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic. If successful, the approach could revolutionise how we detect the virus with the potential to screen high numbers.’

Once they have established the scent, Prof Logan’s team will set to work in a lab to recreate a synthetic version of the smell using chemicals.

This, in turn, means they can train more dogs without requiring further human samples.

The Duchess of Cornwall has spoken to Dr Guest over the telephone about the scheme and has also asked to be kept informed about the dogs’ progress. 

She has had her own experience of the virus as her husband, the Prince of Wales, tested positive for Covid-19 with mild symptoms, although she herself escaped illness.

Jasper (above) is a cocker spaniel being trained as part of the trials. Together with five other dogs, they they are known as the ‘Super Six’

‘The Duchess is a huge believer in what we do,’ says Dr Guest.

‘She has seen how our dogs work with cancer and Parkinson’s to detect disease.’

The animals can point to other conditions, too. ‘We were very privileged to stage a demonstration in front of the Queen at Buckingham Palace two years ago and the Duchess was sitting beside her.

‘We had invited some of our clients to the event, including a woman who suffers from Postural Tachycardia Syndrome, where an abnormal heart rate occurs and can make a person faint when sitting up or standing.

‘This lady’s dog had noticed a change in her heart rate and jumped up to warn her of a medical emergency. 

‘The Duchess immediately spotted it even before I did and the lady had to lie down and make herself safe.’

The Covid-19 team has already shown how to combat malaria in West Africa. 

Working in the Gambia, they trained dogs who sniffed sock samples to successfully detect children carrying malaria parasites without exhibiting symptoms of the disease.

Some people who themselves have immunity can unknowingly harbour the parasites that cause the disease and pass it on to mosquitos – which then spread it with deadly consequences.

Given their track record, the scientists are confident they can repeat their success to target Covid-19.

When fully trained, a team of four Covid-19 bio-detection dogs including Star (above), working with sufficient breaks, could screen 1,000 people an hour – helping to reduce the risk of fresh infection brought by travellers from abroad

Animal lovers will be relieved to know the dogs themselves will not be at risk of contracting the virus.

‘It’s highly unlikely because they have very low susceptibility to it,’ says Professor Steve Lindsay, a disease specialist at Durham University, who is also working on the project.

‘Being closer to the ground, they’re likely to get a low contact with the virus if anything, and probably nothing compared to a person sitting next to an infected individual on a plane.

‘We can provide PPE for both the handler and the dog – including goggles you can get for dogs. 

‘We have a designated vet monitoring the health of the animals. They’re all spoilt rotten because these aren’t kennel dogs – they all live with families and individuals out in the community.’

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