University of Adelaide: COVID detector dog squad begins hospital duty

The pilot study will see the dogs, along with their SA Pathology handlers, stationed at the Emergency Department where they will rely on their keen sense of smell to identify COVID positive visitors as part of a voluntary pilot study.

The four Labradors trained in the program will be stationed at Lyell McEwin Hospital for six weeks, with two dogs on site at a time and each dog having the capacity to inspect up to 100 people an hour.

During triage at the Emergency Department, patients and visitors will be offered the opportunity to be screened by dogs as part of the existing COVID testing process.

The study is a collaboration between SA Pathology, the University of Adelaide’s School of Animal and Veterinary Sciences and Northern Adelaide Local Health Network, with funding from The Hospital Research Foundation Group and the University of Adelaide.

Senior lecturer at the University’s School of Animal and Veterinary Sciences, Dr Anne-Lise Chaber, said: “This pilot study is an exciting development and has the potential to be implemented in a range of other settings to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“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.

“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.

“This study will tell us if the sniffer dogs are as reliable at testing people directly in a hospital setting.

“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.”

“This pilot study is an exciting development and has the potential to be implemented in a range of other settings to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.”
Dr Anne-Lise Chaber, Senior lecturer at the University of Adelaide’s School of Animal and Veterinary Sciences

SA Pathology Clinical Service Director, Dr Sophia Otto, said: “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.

“The dogs have a remarkable ability to detect the scent of viral infection before an individual develops symptoms or spreads the virus.

“Our SA Pathology medical detector dog handlers underwent extensive training with their canine partners, and it has been a great experience for them to take part in the study.”

Lyell McEwin Hospital Emergency Physician, Medical Director of Critical Care, Dr Penny Conor said: “Detector dogs are an innovative approach to strengthening infection control measures in health care settings where we know we need to take every precaution to protect patients from the risk of disease.

“This is an exciting development in COVID-19 testing, and we are pleased to be part of this joint project to further research in the area of dogs for infection control.”

Dr Anne-Lise Chaber smiles at the camera.
Dr Anna-Lise Chaber, Senior lecturer at the University of Adelaide’s School of Animal and Veterinary Sciences.

The Hospital Research Foundation Group chief executive Paul Flynn added: “We are proud to fund this innovative research by Dr Chaber and her team, enabling health services to direct their testing and efforts in a more targeted way and contain outbreaks swiftly.

“Having COVID-19 detection dogs at the hospital frontline will also provide the community with additional comfort when attending a busy health care setting.

“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.”

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