COVID detector dogs could soon be used in Australia to literally sniff people infected with coronavirus – even if they have no symptoms.
Research into the effectiveness of using dogs to detect COVID-19 began in Paris a few months ago.
The Nosais project, led by Professor Dominique Grandjean and Clothilde Lecoq of the Alfort veterinary school in France, sought to determine whether dogs, traditionally trained to detect bombs and drugs, could also be trained to detect disease. .
The results were promising and researchers in Adelaide want to see if Australian detector dogs are up to the challenge.
Dr Susan Hazel and Dr Anne-Lise Chaber, from the School of Animal and Veterinary Sciences at the University of Adelaide, told 7NEWS that dogs could change the way Australia handles the COVID pandemic.
So how can dogs who are typically trained to detect explosives and narcotics know if a person has COVID-19, especially if they are asymptomatic?
The answer is through a person’s sweat.
The Alfort Veterinary School project used sweat swabs taken from the arms of infected people while they were hospitalized with coronavirus.
They found that dogs could detect the coronavirus in a person’s sweat with a success rate of close to 100%.
The implications for slowing the spread of community transmission in Australia – and the rest of the world – are considerable, said Dr Chaber.
“Detecting dogs could be used as a screening method,” she said.
“Either people could have swabs taken from under their arms, or dogs could be used in airports, in hospitals.
“Right now, hospital staff have their temperature checked when they walk in, but it’s not always 100% accurate.
“Dogs could potentially be used there. They could be used at the borders. The possibilities are endless.
“We are not suggesting that detector dogs replace current tests, but they could certainly supplement it and you can get an immediate result.”
Dr Chaber said that with access to sweat samples, dogs already trained in other areas such as explosives or narcotics could learn to detect COVID-19 in “a matter of weeks.”
Train the dogs
The University of Adelaide is working with Melbourne-based Detector Dogs Australia to provide the animals needed for training.
Managing Director Kris Kotsopoulos said he felt it was the company’s duty to help with the Australian pilot program.
The company’s dogs have been used in mining, entertainment, oil and gas operations, construction and transportation – and now he wants them to help detect COVID-19.
“I guess any areas that have a flow of human trafficking could use COVID-19 test dogs,” he told 7NEWS.
“Any areas that have a flow of human trafficking could use COVID-19 screening dogs.”
Detector dogs are trained to detect specific scents and are conditioned to believe that scent detection will be rewarded.
“If every item has a unique signature scent, then COVID-19 will be no different,” Kostopoulos said.
“The critical aspect of training is to prevent contamination of the characteristic odor of COVID-19.
“The last aspect will be for dogs to identify the smell of COVID-19 placed on different people in different places to ensure consistency. “
But what exactly is in the sweat of people infected with COVID-19 that dogs can detect?
“To be honest, we don’t know exactly at this point,” Dr Hazel said.
“The French research group collected swabs with sweat for the training of detector dogs, but they also collected just a little air under the arms, to collect these volatile compounds and try to identify what the dogs feel.
“But we don’t know; it’s the same as when we have dogs detecting people who are hypoglycemic, or detecting when someone is about to have a seizure.
“They can detect these things better than we can design a machine yet.
“It could be a change in your immune system when you are infected with COVID-19, which they can detect.
“They are so much more sensitive than humans; we see a three dimensional image with our vision, but I think they see a three dimensional image with their nose.
Many animals have this facility, Dr Hazel explained, but dogs are the easiest to train.
Researchers at the University of Adelaide hope they will be ready to train dogs within the next 6-8 weeks.
“We want this to happen in Australia because we believe it could really help our COVID response,” Dr Chaber said.