Sniffing out COVID-19: The Dogs Making a Difference

30 June 2022

Man's best friend has taken on more meaning after COVID-19 detection dogs bounded into the Lyell McEwin this month. This solution hasn’t come about overnight. For the past two years, Anne-Lise, in conjunction with The University of Adelaide and SA Pathology, has been conducting vital research and leading trials into whether these four-legged friends could be the solution to quick and easy detection of COVID-19.

“To fight a pandemic, what you need is a great and very fast tool. The problem that we’ve had since the beginning is that PCR is very accurate, but it is not fast and Antigen tests are very fast but not accurate… So that’s the reason I embarked on this project two years ago, to find a fast and great tool.”

An initial trial, which took place at Adelaide Airport late last year, returned 97% accurate results and has led to the establishment of the dogs in a healthcare setting with support from The Hospital Research Foundation. 

The environment last time was highly controlled, as all cases were positive between day zero and seven of the virus. 

But a hospital where the four dogs will be required to screen roughly 100 people an hour required a new approach. 

The dogs and their handlers spent six weeks in a training program; now when a positive COVID-19 scent is located, the dog will simply sit in front of the infected person. 

“We know it works in a controlled setting; we want to see how it's working in a deployment setting. If it works, it's honestly a little bit of a revolution as we’ve got another tool to detect disease.”

Dr Sophia Otto, Clinical Service Director of SA Pathology is in complete agreement. “Accurate early detection is where the true benefit lies in this study, as people can be infectious before showing any symptoms of COVID-19 and can unwittingly spread the virus.”

If the program is approved, many more dogs will need training. Using only positive samples was thought to be too difficult to sustain, leading Anne-Lise and the team to get creative using a surrogate scent. 

"The dogs were initially given the volatile compound on infused gauze that was placed on top of a Kong, but as their training progressed the potency of the scent was diffused more and more."

This built up the dog's capability to detect the virus’s scent, and they may now be able to detect the scent up to a day before a PCR could identify a positive result. 

If you’re wondering about the safety of the pups, there’s no need. 

Dogs have an extremely low susceptibility to COVID-19. They do not replicate or transmit the virus. They are also PCR screened every three weeks through the mouth. 

All dogs throughout the last two years of research have returned negative results. The same can be said within international teams too, where there is often a greater risk.

Dogs are a perfect choice for testing as they have about 300 million receptors (for context, humans have approximately 5-6 million), and Labradors "are easy to train and they enjoy their work."

Well done to Anne-Lise, the entire team and the volunteers taking part and thank you to The Hospital Research Foundation for their support. SA Pathology is proud to partner with this vital research, which will help us navigate the new phase of the pandemic we are entering. 

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