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COVID-19 sniffer dogs: The U.K.’s latest attempt to tackle the coronavirus

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The U.K. hopes to develop a new weapon in the global war against the coronavirus pandemic: COVID-19 sniffer dogs.

A £500,000 ($605,000) government program to find new ways of fighting the pandemic that’s gripped the nation since March will back clinical trials to train dogs to see if they can spot coronavirus before symptoms even appear, the Department for Health and Social Care said Saturday. Researchers at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and Durham University, and the charity Medical Detection Dogs will conduct the trials.

The plan isn’t totally crazy: Dogs have already been trained to detect certain cancers, and if they could be used to detect the virus in asymptomatic people, they could serve as an “early warning measure,” the department said. The dogs used will be a mixture of Labradors and Cocker Spaniels.

“Bio-detection dogs already detect specific cancers and we believe this innovation might provide speedy results as part of our wider testing strategy,” Minister for Innovation James Bethell said in an emailed statement. “Accuracy is essential so this trial will tell us whether ‘Covid dogs’ can reliably detect the virus and stop it spreading.”

For the initial phase of the trial, National Health Service staff in London hospitals will collect odor samples from people who are infected with coronavirus and those who are uninfected, and six dogs will be trained to recognize the virus from the samples.

In theory, the animals could each screen as many as 250 people per hour, according to the department. It said that dogs can be trained to detect the odor of disease at the equivalent dilution of one teaspoon of sugar in two Olympic-sized swimming pools of water.

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