Could dogs’ keen sense of smell help screen humans for the coronavirus?

A new study from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine might answer that question as soon as this summer.

Researchers with Penn Vet’s Working Dog Center are enlisting the help of eight dogs – yellow, black, and chocolate Labrador retrievers – over a three-week period to expose their sensitive sniffers to COVID-19-positive saliva and urine samples in a laboratory setting. The process, known as odor imprinting, will likely begin as soon as next week.

Once the dogs learn the odor, investigators must show that the canines can discriminate between COVID-19-positive and COVID-19-negative samples. Then, further research can be conducted to see whether the dogs can identify COVID-19 in infected people, including those who are asymptomatic.

Cynthia Otto, director of Penn Vet's Working Dog Center, is leading a pilot study using scent detection dogs in the fight against COVID-19. The study is using yellow, black, and chocolate Labrador retrievers.
Sabina Louise Pierce
Cynthia Otto, director of Penn Vet's Working Dog Center, is leading a pilot study using scent detection dogs in the fight against COVID-19. The study is using yellow, black, and chocolate Labrador retrievers.

Preliminary screening of humans by trained dogs could begin as early as July.

With up to 300 million smell receptors, compared with a person’s mere six million, a dog’s nose has a lot of sniffing power available to help humankind. Canines trained through Penn’s Working Dog Center have made significant and well-known contributions to public safety and police work, but they also have aided research advances in medical detection.

“Scent-detection dogs can accurately detect low concentrations of volatile organic compounds, otherwise knowns as VOCs, associated with various diseases such as ovarian cancer, bacterial infections, and nasal tumors," said Cynthia Otto, director of the center and professor of working dog sciences and sports medicine. "These VOCs are present in human blood, saliva, urine, or breath.”

If the pilot proves successful, Otto said it could lead to an alternative test and new technology that could expedite coronavirus screening of people, including asymptomatic carriers. Currently, people in the Philadelphia area without symptoms often cannot get tested.

Otto will be leading a group of other researchers, including colleagues from the Penn Center for Research on Coronavirus and Other Emerging Pathogens, Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

The total cost of the pilot was not disclosed. Penn Vet said it is being funded in part by the new Penn Vet COVID-19 Research Innovation Fund, an effort that received $550,000 in support from Republic Bank chairman Vernon Hill and his wife, Shirley. The U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Chemical Biological Center also is providing support for the study, which is taking place in a facility in Maryland because of COVID-19 restrictions at Penn.

Otto said the dogs in the early stages of the pilot will not be exposed to live virus samples. While they will be exposed to people with the virus eventually, if the earlier phases are successful, the dogs will be monitored. In addition, the recent case of COVID-19 in a family pet pug aside, dogs are not believed to be at high risk for the coronavirus, she said. But they could be at the forefront of a breakthrough in the virus’ detection.

“The potential impact of these dogs and their capacity to detect COVID-19 could be substantial,” Otto said. “This study will harness the dogs’ extraordinary ability to support the nation’s COVID-19 surveillance systems, with the goal of reducing community spread.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the name of the bank of which Vernon Hill is chairman.