Sniffer dogs are more usually associated with hunting for drugs or explosives, but what if a dog could sniff out a person infected with Covid-19?
That’s the question currently being investigated by Professor Chris Callewaert of the university of Ghent, a specialist in microbial ecology, or the bacteria that live on the human body.
On Twitter, where he goes by the handle @DrArmpit, he describes himself as a body odour specialist, and his latest research suggests body odour may not necessarily be a bad thing.
The plan is to train dogs to detect the particular odour that the virus which causes Covid-19 gives to the sweat of those who are infected.
“To be able to detect people with the coronavirus, the dogs must be trained with a certain odour profile. And we know that the coronavirus gives off a specific odour in the sweat.”
There is no danger involved for the dogs, he told VRT Radio 2.
“The corona virus is only spread through saliva and particles from the nose, not through the skin and sweat on the skin. If the virus is on the skin, it comes through a saliva or nose drop. We also only take a sample of the sweat, in which there is almost certainly no virus. We need the scent the virus gives to sweat.”
In any case, the dog never comes closer than 20cm to the sample. There is also little or no risk later, when the dog is expected to come in contact with infected people.
“The dog only comes up to the legs. And while there are rare cases where the virus was found on a dog or cat, that was usually because the owner was very sick and the pet had been stroked a lot.”
Right now, the team is working on training dogs together with the company K9 Detection Belgium, which supplies sniffer dogs trained to detect drugs or explosives to security services. The training is taking place at Bredene at the Belgian coast, but the project needs volunteers to provide sweat samples.
“We need people who are infected with the coronavirus, and others who do not have the virus. For that we need men and women of all ages,” he said.
“If we can determine how the smell of sweat is structured by infected people, dogs can pick up that smell.”
The intention, ultimately, is to deploy the dogs at events where large groups of people are gathered – if and when those are once again allowed.
“If the dogs sniff people at the entrance, [the organisers] can get infected people out early . And even though those dogs are very accurate, an extra test can inform everyone whether or not there is an infection and whether quarantine is needed,” he said.
“All in all, that is a little faster than waiting for someone to develop symptoms and go to the doctor for a test, the result of which will also be delayed.”