A UK trial to see whether specialist medical sniffer dogs can detect coronavirus in humans is set to begin.
The dogs are already trained to detect odours of certain cancers, malaria and Parkinson’s disease by the charity Medical Detection Dogs.
The first phase of the trial will be led by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, along with the charity and Durham University.
It has been backed with £500,000 of government funding.
Innovation minister Lord Bethell said he hoped the dogs could provide “speedy results” as part of the government’s wider testing strategy.
The trial will explore whether the “Covid dogs” – made up of Labradors and cocker spaniels – can spot the virus in humans from odour samples before symptoms appear.
It will establish whether so-called bio-detection dogs, which could each screen up to 250 people per hour, could be used as a new early warning measure to detect Covid-19 in the future.
The first phase will involve NHS staff in London hospitals collecting odour samples from those infected with coronavirus and those who are uninfected.
Six dogs will then go through training to identify the virus from the samples.
More than 10 years of research gathered by Medical Detection Dogs has shown the dogs can be trained to sniff out the odour of disease at the equivalent dilution of one teaspoon of sugar in two Olympic-sized swimming pools of water.
Dr Claire Guest, the charity’s co-founder and chief executive, said she was “sure our dogs will be able to find the odour of Covid-19”.
If that proves to be the case, the dogs will then move into a “second phase to test them in live situations, following which we hope to work with other agencies to train more dogs for deployment”, she said.
Prof James Logan, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: “Our previous work has shown that malaria has a distinctive odour, and with medical detection dogs, we successfully trained dogs to accurately detect malaria.
“This, combined with the knowledge that respiratory disease can change body odour, makes us hopeful that the dogs can also detect Covid-19.”