Third stage trials begin in ongoing COVID-19 detector dog research

A team of six detector dogs have commenced research trials at Adelaide Airport today to determine the feasibility of training dogs to detect COVID-19.

The six dogs include four Australian Border Force (ABF) detector dogs, one South Australian Metropolitan Fire Service (SAMFS) dog and one dog from the University of Adelaide (gifted by the ABF).

Minister for Home Affairs Karen Andrews said the trials are an important part of the Morrison Government’s efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19.

“The Government continues to take action to protect Australians from COVID-19 and invest in new and emerging technologies that can keep Australians safe,” Minister Andrews said.

“These trials are still in early stages, but if they are successful, detector dogs could provide an important screening method to safeguard Australia against COVID-19.

“The concept could see dogs used by a range of agencies across a range of environments such as at airports, stadiums and crowded locations to screen large amounts of people quickly, reducing the chance of the virus spreading at big events.” 

South Australian Minister for Health and Wellbeing Stephen Wade said the joint project provided another layer of safety for South Australia to continue supporting returning Australians.

“Detector dogs may provide an efficient and reliable screening method to complement the suite of COVID-19 security strategies already in place as part of the Marshall Liberal Government’s plan to keep South Australia safe and strong through the pandemic,” Minister Wade said.

“This project, part of an international research alliance led out of France, is an exciting opportunity for the State, giving us the ability to further strengthen our borders and enhance our defence against the virus.”

The COVID-19 detector dog feasibility trials are a collaboration between the ABF and the University of Adelaide’s School of Animal and Veterinary Sciences, the SAMFS, the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment and SA and NSW state health departments.

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 – even when people are asymptomatic or in the incubation phase.

The phase three trials at Adelaide Airport follow on from trials earlier this year at Sydney International Terminal (15-31 March 2021). This latest phase will further progress the project in an operational research setting. 

The results from the Adelaide trials are expected to be published in late 2021 and will inform whether further operational trials should be undertaken. 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, but we need to do further work to understand their effectiveness in the operational environment.

Note to media: 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 away from the travelling public.

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