Fourteen dogs have begun their training at the University of Adelaide, and at the Australian Border Force’s (ABF) National Detector Dog Program Facility in Victoria, as part of a joint venture into determining the feasibility of training COVID-19 detector dogs. The results from the trials are expected to be published in early 2021 and will inform whether trials in the community should be undertaken as the next phase.
COVID-19 detector dogs could potentially provide an efficient, reliable and complementary screening method as part of a future suite of biosecurity strategies in Australia.
Dr Anne-Lise Chaber and Dr Susan Hazel from the University of Adelaide’s School of Animal and Veterinary Sciences are coordinating the Australian arm of an international research alliance led out of the National Veterinary School in Alfort, France. The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, and South Australian Metropolitan Fire Service (SAMFS) have also joined the University of Adelaide to support its research.
Previous studies have shown dogs can detect odours, known as Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) that are produced by the human body’s response to viral infections.
Dr Chaber said the current training will test the accuracy of the dogs in detecting VOCs in the sweat samples of people who are infected by COVID-19. In comparison to those of standard diagnostic laboratory testing (PCR), preliminary results show specialised working dogs can detect COVID-19 VOCs in patients, even when people are asymptomatic or in the incubation phase.
“Dogs could be deployed in airports and also be used to screen staff in hospitals and travellers in quarantine,” she said.
Dr Susan Hazel said using a scientific approach to dog training would bolster reliability.
“The dog’s nose beats the best current technology in identifying infected people,’’ she said.
“Using a scientific approach to dog training, we hope to increase the number of possible uses for future detector dog work” she said.
ABF Commander Chris Collingwood said the agency had established a project team to determine the feasibility of training detector dogs to identify asymptomatic people with COVID-19 based on international research efforts.
“The work of the ABF has been integral to Australian Government efforts to slow the transmission of COVID-19 across our border and keep travellers and supply chains moving,’’ he said.
“The ABF is committed to strengthening Australia’s human biosecurity defences across the border continuum and remains at the forefront of technologies and capabilities being developed. This will ensure the ABF is well placed to implement new enhanced border control measures in protecting the Australian community against COVID-19 and other pandemics.
“This project uses the expertise of the ABF’s Detector Dog Program, supported by domestic and international partners across the public and private sector, with broader expertise in human biosecurity, virology and health sciences. The trial will complement global vaccine efforts currently underway.
“The ABF is collaborating with the University of Adelaide and formally assisting their research to advance our COVID dog capability,” Commander Collingwood said.
Acting First Assistant Secretary, Biosecurity Operations at the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, Lee Cale, said it was great for the best noses in biosecurity to be involved in this project.
“Our biosecurity detector dogs are a vital part of Australia’s frontline defence against biosecurity pests and diseases and we are continually looking at new, innovative ways to utilise their skills,” Ms Cale said.
“Training detector dogs to undertake these different tasks demonstrates their versatility, but it is also a credit to the researchers and their partner agencies in recognising the potential opportunities.
“We are pleased to be able to collaborate with ABF, SAMFS and the University of Adelaide on this important project and look forward to it delivering positive outcomes for the management of human health risks into the future.”
Note to media: It is important to note the dogs are not being trained to directly sniff COVID infected people. Rather the dogs are trained to sniff VOCs present in sweat samples that have been volunteered by people and presented to the dog in isolation through a line of search carriers.