Ministers have been accused of sitting on a ‘ready-to-go’ offer to get canine coronavirus detectors into airports.Experts at Medical Detection Dogs, a charity which already does pioneering work in cancer and diabetes detection, are confident their dogs can smell the disease even in passengers showing no symptoms. Talks with the government to get the scheme off the ground have stalled in the last two weeks, despite a senior Tory MP claiming there is no reason not to give the green light.
The government has been under pressure to explain how it will start screening the 15,000 people who arrive into the UK every day and the millions more who will arrive once travel restrictions are lifted.
Six dogs have been picked and could be trained in six to eight weeks, the charity says, but £500,000 in funding and samples from coronavirus patients are needed to complete their training.Co-founder Andrew Whitby-Collins told Metro.co.uk his team have met repeated requests for details but are now being kept ‘in limbo’.
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For our Coronavirus live blog click here.Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Home Secretary Priti Patel are understood to have seen the charity’s proposal, which is backed by experts from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and Durham University. A Home Office source said there is no imminent decision on whether to release the funding. Conservative MP Iain Duncan Smith, who has been pushing ministers to support the plan, told Metro.co.uk: ‘I’m told there is no reason why this shouldn’t go ahead. It just needs a final executive decision.
The virus has also shown itself capable of spreading to pets, with a third animal, a cat belonging to a Belgian owner, being diagnosed with Covid-19 on Friday night.(Picture: Getty Images)Belgium’s National Council for Animal Protection has stressed that there is ‘no reason to abandon your animal’ over coronavirus fears.
‘I would urge ministers to do it today – in fact they should have done it already. This virus is not hanging around waiting for decisions.’Mr Whitby-Collins added: ‘We’re primed and ready to go. The pieces are there, we just need them to say yes.’ ‘Time is of the essence here – we are really confident that these dogs can play a vital role against the virus.’ In the meantime the charity, based outside Milton Keynes, has set up a fundraising page here asking for £1,000,000 to cover the dogs’ training, airport deployment and long-term availability in case of a second wave of infections.
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Thermal cameras to detect signs of fever have started to be installed in airports but the government has admitted they can only detect a small minority of cases.
Even if swab testing is rolled out to airports, it could take days to get back results – during which travellers are free to choose whether or not they self-isolate.
Trainers say the dogs could sniff-test 750 people an hour and detect cases in half a second, freeing up valuable testing resources for the NHS.
The charity’s website details the six dogs who are raring to fight the outbreak – three working cockers, a Labrador, a Labradoodle and a Labrador-golden retriever cross – but the scheme is designed to be scaled up. LSHTM’s Professor James Logan said: ‘Our previous work demonstrated that dogs can detect odours from humans with a malaria infection with extremely high accuracy – above the World Health Organisation standards for a diagnostic.
‘We know that other respiratory diseases like COVID-19 change our body odour, so there is a very high chance that dogs will be able to detect it.
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‘This new diagnostic tool could revolutionise our response to COVID-19 in the short term, but particularly in the months to come, and could be profoundly impactful.’
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