WATCH: Australian Border Force trains dogs to sniff out Covid-19

By Se-Anne Rall Time of article published Jun 17, 2021

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DURBAN – Six dogs, including four Australian Border Force detector dogs, one South Australian Metropolitan Fire Service dog and one dog from the University of Adelaide, have commenced research trials at Adelaide Airport to determine the feasibility of deploying dogs to detect Covid-19.

The Australian Border Force (ABF) said this formed part of the latest Covid detector dog research and trials which began at the Adelaide Airport this week.

The dogs are not being trained to directly sniff out Covid-infected people.

“Rather, the dogs are trained to detect variants of concern present in sweat samples that have been volunteered by people and presented to the dog in isolation away from the travelling public,” the ABF said.

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 South Australian Metropolitan Fire Service, the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, and New South Wales and South Australia State Health.

Following positive results from the phase 1 controlled trials at the University of Adelaide, and the ABF National Detector Dog Programme Facility in Melbourne, operational research trials were conducted over three weeks at Sydney International Terminal from March 15 – 31, 2021.

The Sydney trials provided scientific results which require further research to test the effectiveness of the dogs to detect Covid-19 infected people from sweat samples. Initially, additional controlled research trials will be conducted in Adelaide to test findings from the Sydney trials.

An Australian Border Force Detector Dog Unit conducts Covid-19 detector dog research and trials at Adelaide Airport. Picture: ABF

If successful, South Australia State Health has indicated support for the start of operational trials on ‘live’ samples from passengers arriving on repatriation flights. The provision of a sweat sample by the passenger would be voluntary during the trial.

Dr Anne-Lise Chaber and Dr Susan Hazel, of the University of Adelaide’s School of Animal and Veterinary Sciences, are co-ordinating the Australian arm of an international research alliance led out of the National Veterinary School in Alfort, France.

“Potentially, detector dogs may be able to provide a more accurate indication of whether a person is infectious than is currently being undertaken in hotel quarantine and the community,” Chaber said.

She said using a scientific approach to dog training, they hope to increase the number of possible uses for future detector dog work.

The results from the latest trials are expected to be published in the second half of 2021 and will inform whether trials in the community should be undertaken as the next phase.

An Australian Border Force Detector Dog Unit conducts Covid-19 detector dog research and trials at Adelaide Airport. Picture: ABF

Acting ABF Commander John Taylor said these trials contributed to the Australian government’s commitment to combat the spread of Covid-19. 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, should research and operational trials provide successful outcomes.

Taylor said the work of the ABF had been integral to Australian government efforts to slow the transmission of Covid-19 across the border and keep travellers and supply chains moving.

An Australian Border Force Detector Dog Unit conducts Covid-19 detector dog research and trials at Adelaide Airport. Picture: ABF

“The ABF is committed to strengthening Australia’s border security defences and remains at the forefront of technologies and capabilities being developed. This will ensure the ABF is well placed to implement new, enhanced border control measures in protecting the Australian community against Covid-19 and other pandemics,” Taylor said.

“This project uses the expertise of the ABF’s Detector Dog Programme, supported by domestic and international partners across the public and private sector, with broader expertise in human biosecurity, virology and health sciences,” he added.

Taylor said the ability of a dog to indicate that a person is infectious even though they have not yet had a positive polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test will assist in earlier intervention in managing the spread of the virus.

First assistant secretary of biosecurity operations at the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, Col Hunter, said it was great to be involved in this project.

“Our biosecurity detector dogs are a vital part of Australia’s front-line defence against biosecurity pests and diseases and we are continually looking at new, innovative ways to utilise their talents,” Hunter said.

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