Giant rats could be trained to sniff out COVID-19, scientists say

GLASGOW, Scotland — As vaccinations ramp up across the globe, finding out who does and doesn’t have COVID-19 remains a major hurdle. Now, researchers say rats may be able to help sniff out the coronavirus pandemic before it spreads further.

Researchers at the University of Glasgow say it’s “entirely possible” giant rats could be trained to fight against COVID. It’s a similar plan to one already underway, training dogs to sniff out the virus among travelers at airports.

The suggestion comes from scientists training giant rats to sniff out a deadly disease that destroys herds of goats and cows in the world’s poorest countries. Brucellosis is a highly contagious zoonotic disease that causes flu-like symptoms in humans. Patients may also develop problems in the bones, joints, and heart, and in some cases, the illness is fatal.

Treatment for brucellosis is expensive and researchers from Scotland and Tanzania are working on a project to use sniffer rats to tackle the problem. African giant pouched rats – which can grow to three feet in length – have previously been successfully trained to sniff out landmines and tuberculosis.

In Tanzania, Mozambique, and Ethiopia, sniffer rats have helped increase the detection rate of tuberculosis in partner clinics by around 40 percent. They are currently being specially trained to help with the blight of brucellosis.

Animals taking a greater role in the fight against disease

Scientists are now seeing if that research could have wider benefits in understanding how diseases like coronavirus make the leap from animals to humans.

“It is entirely possible that these rats could be trained to detect COVID-19,” says Professor Dan Haydon, director of the institute of biodiversity, animal health and comparative medicine at the University of Glasgow, in a statement to SWNS. “There is already evidence that dogs can.”

When it comes to animals and COVID-19, some trainers are claiming pooches can detect the virus with almost perfect accuracy. One such program in France is training canines to detect signs of the virus in the sweat of humans — particularly in their armpits. These methods offer airports faster alternatives than rapid testing kits which can also be quite expensive.

Most of these findings have not yet been peer reviewed or published, making it hard for the wider scientific community to evaluate the claims.

“Six out of every ten known infectious diseases of humans are estimated to originate from animals,” Prof. Haydon adds. “Three-quarters of new or emerging infectious diseases in humans originates from animals, of which Covid-19 represents a particularly devastating example.”

SWNS writers Ellie Forbes and Martin Williams contributed to this report.

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