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Dogs are being trained to smell COVID-19 on people

If the study works, it could help with identifying patients who have no symptoms from coronavirus.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine (Penn Vet) are trying to discover if dogs can smell whether someone has COVID-19. It could potentially cut down on community spread of the virus by identifying patients who may be asymptomatic -- those who have the disease but are not showing symptoms.

Penn Vet says it is training eight scent detection dogs. They will be exposed to COVID-19-positive saliva and urine samples in a lab for three weeks -- a process called odor imprinting. Once they are familiar with the odor, researchers will see if the dogs can tell the difference between positive and negative samples in the lab. 

If that works, the hope is to move the study to live humans to see if the dogs can smell the virus on people. That part of the study could start as early as July.

“The potential impact of these dogs and their capacity to detect COVID-19 could be substantial. 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," said Cynthia Otto, professor of Working Dog Sciences and Sports Medicine and director of Penn Vet’s Working Dog Center, in a statement.

Credit: University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine
Lucy participates in scent detection training at University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine (Penn Vet) training center.

Dogs have 300 million smell receptors -- 50 times that of a human, according to Penn Vet.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up in a couple of weeks. Older adults and people with existing health problems are at higher risk of more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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