The Duchess of Cornwall has hailed trials teaching dogs to sniff out coronavirus as a “game changing moment” which will “save thousands of lives”.
Camilla, wearing a plastic visor for the first time in public for parts of her engagement, visited the Medical Detection Dogs charity in Milton Keynes on Wednesday.
She appealed for more volunteers and for all hospitals to provide the organisation with positive Covid samples to speed up the vital research.
It is hoped Covid-19 detecting dogs could be on duty at airports by Christmas.
The duchess said: “From the minute I visited you, I just knew that there was something very special about these dogs and as we’ve seen today with Covid, how quickly they’re learning to sniff the scent.
“It will be a game changing moment for this country and the world, and luckily it’s Britain that is leading the way.
“But we do need help, we do need more positive samples.
“If we can appeal to all hospitals to please, please give the Medical Detection Dogs these samples because they are going to help to save thousands of lives, and I think that it is so important.
“Also, we need more dogs, we need more handlers, we need more foster homes…
“This is a game changing moment and I really do urge everybody, if they can, to please help us.”
Her remarks were followed by a dog barking, with Camilla then quipping: “We’ve got a dog agreeing.”
The duchess, who is patron of the charity, is a well-known dog lover and has two Jack Russell terriers called Bluebell and Beth.
She was greeted on arrival by working dog Storm – a Labrador Golden Retriever cross who is also in training to detect the virus.
During the demonstrations, the duchess watched Asher, a cocker spaniel who has only been trained on Covid for two days, pick out the sample with the disease from one of four stands.
“It’s a very exciting moment,” Camilla said.
“It’s incredible to be able to do that after just two days.”
She also watched Belle – a fox red labrador who, unlike Asher, has never worked on disease detection before – pick out the correct sample, a pop sock that had been worn for 12 hours by a patient with Covid.
Camilla remarked: “What a clever dog.”
But the demonstration also showed it was early days for both dogs.
During one run-through, Belle spotted the correct stand, but failed to stop because she is young and impulsive.
Camilla was also shown Covid-19 dogs in training as they carried out a demonstration of passive screening – which could be used in public places such as airports.
The collaboration between the charity, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Durham University will ascertain whether dogs can detect the odour of the Covid-19 illness.
If successful, the trial could revolutionise diagnosis of the virus by enabling screening of high numbers of people, even if asymptomatic.
Dogs could be deployed to airports in the UK within six months to assist with rapid screening of people travelling from abroad, potentially up to 250 people per hour.
But Professor James Logan, who is in charge of the trial and head of the department of disease control at LSHTM, said they were short of volunteers.
The research involves getting volunteers, both positive and negative for Covid, to wear a pair of nylon socks, a face mask and a T shirt for several hours and then donate them to the study.
Researchers isolate the chemicals given off by the volunteers, and send them to the charity to see if the dogs can be trained to respond to them.
Prof Logan said: “We need 675 negative samples, and 325 positive samples.
“Although it does not sound like a lot, it is hard because the numbers (of people with Covid) came down in the UK very quickly.”
So far they have only have 10 positive samples.
He added it was too early to say whether the trial was working, but they were still hoping to have the first dogs deployed by Christmas.
Prof Logan said: “In other parts of the world where they are doing similar things, anecdotally there are some positive results.
“Also, a lot of people have contacted us including medical professionals to say ‘If I walk into a Covid ward I can smell it’.”
He added: “Once we’ve got all the samples, it will take about eight weeks to train all the dogs that we have.
“Then we would be looking to deploy within weeks after that.
“We are still hoping that we would have the first dogs deployed before Christmas.”
Medical Detection Dogs trains the animals to detect the odour of human disease with the aim of improving diagnosis and saving lives.
Bio Detection Dogs already investigate samples to find the odour of cancer, malaria, Parkinson’s and other illnesses.