Getting tested for COVID-19 isn’t exactly the most comfortable thing in the world. The viral test can determine whether you have a current infection — you can get one at your nearest assessment centre — but it requires a pretty invasive process, during which you get a swab shoved up your nose.
“That test is uncomfortable,” artist Drake said to his dad, on Instagram Live, after getting his own done. (The results came back negative.) “They put that Q-tip all inside your thoughts and s-t.”
The only other way you can get tested for the coronavirus right now is through bloodwork, but even this antibody test can’t necessarily determine whether you have a current infection. It’s more accurate at revealing prior infections.
Researchers are well aware of how unpleasant it is to get a foreign object planted in your nasal cavity, and they’ve been trying to find a more agreeable way to test people for COVID-19 – one that doesn’t require putting a Q-tip into our thoughts. And as it turns out, there eventually might be a rather sweet alternative: dogs. Researchers in the UK have been training dogs to detect the virus — solely off of scent.
“When you have a disease, your body odor changes,” James Logan, head of the Department of Disease Control at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told CBC News Kids. “And dogs are an excellent example of being able to detect smells and also learn those smells. That’s what we’re aiming to do with COVID-19.”
After about eight to 10 weeks of training, the trained Cocker Spaniels and Labradors would be able to identify infected people just by walking past them. If they smelled the virus, they would stop in their tracks and look toward the person they think is infected.
Researchers think this would be especially useful for people who are asymptomatic, and hope to deploy the dogs in public places like airports, train stations and stadiums. And there would be no fear of transmitting the virus to the dogs, since, unlike cats, they’re immune to contracting COVID-19.
It’s not just the UK that’s testing this out.
While researchers in London have taken the eight-to-10 week training approach, dogs in Germany seem capable of doing the job after just a few days of training. A study conducted by the University Veterinary Medicine Hannover found dogs from the armed forces, who were trained for five days, were able to identify the coronavirus with a 94% success rate after sniffing the saliva of more than 1,000 people, both healthy and infected.
“We think this works because metabolic processes in the body of a diseased patient is completely changed,” professor Maren Von Kockritz-Blickwede said in a YouTube video about the project. “We think that the dogs are able to detect a specific smell of the metabolic changes that occur in those patients.”
Dogs have an excellent sense of smell, obviously, that far surpasses the senses we possess as human beings. It’s not just that they can smell other dogs by sniffing trees outside. Their noses are about 1,000 times more sensitive than ours, and they’ve been trained to detect about a dozen human diseases, like malaria, prostate cancer, diabetes and Parkinson’s disease, so it makes sense that they’d be able to detect COVID-19.
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine are also looking into training dogs to sniff out COVID-19 in patients.
More information will come soon. So until then, we’ll have to deal with the discomfort of getting our thoughts swabbed by Q-tips.
A version of this article originally appeared in HuffPost Canada.