By Stephanie Stahl

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Could specially-trained dogs become frontline screeners for COVID-19? Research is starting at Penn Vet to determine if dogs can smell the virus, similar to how they detect drugs and some medical conditions.

This is a first-of-its-kind research project that could revolutionize screening for the coronavirus.

Using their noses, research dogs at Penn Vet’s Working Dog Center are able to detect disease. It’s a unique research project to determine if dogs can detect the virus by smelling it.

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“I think the dogs can make a huge difference,” said Cynthia Otto, the center’s director at Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine.

Otto explained why she thinks COVID-19 would have an odor.

“We know that all diseases seem to have a unique odor and we know that viruses themselves actually have a unique odor,” Otto said.

Otto says eight dogs will work with samples from COVID patients at Penn and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to quickly determine if they’re able to detect the virus.

“Look at this in a way that is going to be scientific, safe for the dogs and safe for the people involved,” Otto said.

In 2013, research on ovarian cancer started at the center, detecting it through smell. The dogs are now used to alert for a variety of conditions, like seizures and diabetes.

Could COVID-19 be next?

“It will be similar to what happens at the airport when the dogs are sniffing for explosives,” Otto said.

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If the COVID research pans out, preliminary canine screenings of people could start in July, with the dogs ideally being able to distinguish between positive and negative cases.

“If the dogs can do the in-person testing, that’s just gonna totally change how we’re able to respond to our need for social distancing and identifying people who might be carriers who we weren’t otherwise identifying,” Otto said.

This potential detection ability with dogs could be especially helpful with asymptomatic patients, and with hospitals and businesses where testing is most challenging.

The dogs and people working on this research will not be in jeopardy of being exposed to the virus.

Stephanie Stahl