Highly trained dogs could help combat the spread of coronavirus. Here’s how they might sniff it out.

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Man’s best friend could soon become a lifeline to citizens threatened by the spread of coronavirus.

A charity, which has previously trained dogs to detect malaria, believes canines might be able to use their powerful sense of smell to detect the disease.

U.K.- based Medical Detection Dogs is working with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and Durham University in the collaboration and, if successful, the animals could be used to identify travelers infected with the virus who are entering a country. They would also be able to be deployed in other public spaces to identify individuals who may be unaware they might be spreading the disease.

For years the charity has been researching the science behind dogs’ sense of smell and believes dogs may be able to detect this latest threat to the world’s health. It has successfully trained dogs to spot diseases such as cancer, Parkinson’s and bacterial infections. They are also able to detect subtle changes in the temperature of the skin, so could potentially tell if someone has a fever.

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Using a specific scientific approach, the charity has produced more than a dozen peer-reviewed research papers that it claims support its belief that each disease has its own unique odor. The process works with the animals sniffing samples in the charity’s training room and then indicating when they have found it

Dr. Claire Guest, Chief Executive and co-founder of Medical Detection Dogs, said “the dogs could be ready in six weeks to help provide a rapid, noninvasive diagnosis towards the tail end of the epidemic.

“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.

“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 noninvasive.”

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Professor James Logan, head of the Department of Disease Control at LSHTM, said: “Our previous work demonstrated that dogs can detect odors from humans with a malaria infection with extremely high accuracy — above the World Health Organization standards for a diagnostic.

“We know that other respiratory diseases like COVID-19 change our body odor so there is a very high chance that dogs will be able to detect it. This new diagnostic tool could revolutionize our response to COVID-19 in the short term, but particularly in the months to come, and could be profoundly impactful.”

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Professor Steve Lindsay at Durham University said: “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. This would help prevent the re-emergence of the disease after we have brought the present epidemic under control.”

Watch: The dogs trained to spot cancer