A team of COVID-19 detector dogs have started screening for the virus at Lyell McEwin Hospital in Adelaide, South Australia (SA) as part of a six-week pilot study.
Trained by the University of Adeliade’s School of Animal and Vetinary Sciences, the four labradors and their handlers from SA Pathology will be stationed at the Emergency Dapartment (ED), with two dogs on site at a time.
Patients and visitors will be offered the opportunity to be screened during the triage process at the ED, and each dog will have the capacity to inspect up to 100 people an hour.
Senior lecturer at the University’s School of Animal and Veterinary Sciences, Dr Anne-Lise Chaber, said in a release on Wednesday that the pilot study is an exciting development which has the potential to be utilised in a range of setings to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“Specially trained dogs are able to sniff out and identify positive COVID-19 cases faster and earlier than PCR and more reliably than rapid antigen tests,” she said.
“We saw that dogs were a reliable screening tool in our airport trial last year. However, relying on a sweat sample was too time consuming,” she said.
After realising that using sweat samples was not feasible in the real world, Chaber and her team developed what they call a “training aid”, a substitute odour for COVID-19’s volatile organic compounds.
This cocktail of proteins is not infectious, but when dogs are imprinted with it, they can sense and detect COVID-19 in people.
The substance was put on masks, gauze, and socks in training, and it has been confirmed that dogs trained this way can generalise and find people who are COVID-19 positive.
Chaber said this new pilot study will determine if the sniffer dogs are as reliable at screening people directly in a hospital setting as they were in a controlled environment.
“Dogs have a remarkable ability to hone in on COVID-19, and their strike rate for sniffing out the virus is more than 97 per cent, even in symptom-free cases in controlled settings.”
Paul Flynn, chief executive of the Hospital Research Foundation Group, a co-funder of the study, said the foundation is proud to be funding this innovative research, allowing health services to test in a more targeted way and contain outbreaks quickly.
“The evidence so far has shown promising results, particularly in detecting positive cases during the pivotal incubation phase and early infection stage of the virus before symptoms appear,” he said.