Penn is training dogs to sniff out COVID-19 in humans

John McDevitt
May 15, 2020 - 3:58 pm
Dogs train to sniff out COVID-19

University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Smell that virus? Probably not.

Viruses do in fact have odors, our 6 million human smell receptors just can’t detect them. But with up to 300 million smell receptors, dogs may be able to. 

The University of Pennsylvania launched a pilot study to see if canines can sniff out both positive and negative cases of COVID-19.

Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine is currently training 10 Labrador retrievers to detect the scent of COVID-19 in humans — even if they're asymptomatic.

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“That would be huge. That would be a game-changer,” said Dr. Cynthia Otto, a professor of working dog sciences and sports medicine, and the director of Penn Vet’s Working Dog Center, which she founded about eight years ago. 

“Scent detection dogs can accurately detect low concentrations of volatile organic compounds,” Otto continued, “associated with various diseases such as ovarian cancer, bacterial infections, and nasal tumors. … This study will harness the dog’s extraordinary ability to support the nation’s COVID-19 surveillance systems, with the goal of reducing community spread.”

Researchers are introducing the dogs to biological samples from people who had COVID-19.

“Basically, we are looking at urine samples. We are hoping to look at saliva and breath samples as well,” Otto said. “We are going to tell basically if there is an odor excreted in these samples.”

Once the dogs learn the odor, researchers will see if they can differentiate between positive and negative samples.

Preliminary COVID-19 screenings in live humans could start as early as July.

The goal is for the dogs to be able to identify the COVID-19 scent among asymptomatic patients, as well as hospital or business environments. Otto hopes this study can help detect other viruses in the future.

“It’s going to be challenging, but I think it really has a huge potential for opportunity,” she added.