DOGS trained to sniff out the coronavirus at a rate of 250 people per hour are to begin trials in the UK.
The so-called "Covid Dogs" are hoped to be able to detect the disease in humans before symptoms appear in the fight against the virus.
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Six pooches – Bumper, Florin, Digby, Asher, Freya and Storm – who are already used to sniff out diseases such as cancer, malaria and Parkinson's are being given intensive training to track down coronavirus.
It is hoped the mix of labradors and cocker spaniels will be able to screen up to 250 people per hour once trained.
Samples from people who have been infected with coronavirus are being used to train the dogs.
Some respiratory infections are known to cause subtle changes in body odour when compared to people who are uninfected.
Britain remains the worst impacted nation in Europe by the pandemic – with 236,711 cases and 33,998 deaths – but the virus lockdown is beginning to be eased.
Minister for Innovation Lord Bethell said: “Bio-detection dogs already detect specific cancers and we believe this innovation might provide speedy results as part of our wider testing strategy.
“Accuracy is essential so this trial will tell us whether ‘Covid dogs’ can reliably detect the virus and stop it spreading.”
Trials will form part of research into early-warning systems to help track the virus.
The scheme is backed by a £500,000 government grant, with research carried out by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM).
The researchers have teamed up with the charity Medical Detection Dogs (MDD) and Durham University.
MDD boasts dogs can be trained to sniff out diseases at the equivalent of one teaspoon of sugar in two Olympic-sized swimming pools.
Professor James Logan, from LSHTM, 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.
"I would like to thank the UK government for their support of this pioneering research through this funding.
"We’re excited to do this trial, and confirm whether these bio detection dogs can be used to screen for Covid-19.
"If successful, this approach could revolutionise how we detect the virus, with the potential to screen high numbers of people."
The dogs will only be deployed if the science on them being able to sniff out coronavirus is backed up in the lab.
It will form a part of the government's strategy to tackle the virus, with research pressing forward to help support the Covid Alert System.
Dr Claire Guest, CEO of MDD, said: "We have already demonstrated our expertise in canine disease detection by successfully training dogs to detect diseases like cancer, Parkinson’s and malaria, and we apply that same science to train life-saving Medical Alert Assistance Dogs to detect odour changes in individuals caused by their health condition.
"We are sure our dogs will be able to find the odour of COVID-19 and we 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.
"We are incredibly proud that a dog’s nose could once again save many lives."
Britain is beginning to ease its coronavirus lockdown as part of Prime Minister Boris Johnson's three step plan to beat the virus.
The first restrictions eased this week as some sectors were encouraged back to work and people were granted unlimited outdoor exercise.
However, the World Health Organisation have warned a devastating second wave could be due to hit Europe if lockdowns are eased too rapidly.
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