Led by the nose: Meet the UAE's COVID-19 sniffer dogs

Published Sept. 16, 2021 10:49 a.m. ET

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DUBAI -- One year after completing one of the first studies into canine detection of COVID-19, the United Arab Emirates now has 38 sniffer dogs working at its airports that can identify infected persons at a 98.2-percent success rate.

Dubai Police trained the cohort, which includes German Shepherds, Labradors, Cocker Spaniels and Border Collies, to recognize the scent of COVID-19 using samples of sweat from people with confirmed infections, collected by holding a swab in an armpit for a few minutes.

"A very small amount of that is then put into a jar - it has the scent of the patient - then we put the sample out for the dog to sniff ... When he gives us a sign, we give him a treat," said First Lieutenant Nasser al-Falasi of Dubai Police, supervisor of the program at the K9 training center in Dubai's Awir region.

In the center's large training hall, police handlers walk the dogs along a row of metal boxes, of which only one contains a positive sample. The dogs sniff the samples and within seconds sit down to signal that they have found something.

Police trainer Fatima al-Jasmi, who is on the COVID-19 detection team, guides an excited-looking black and white Border Collie through the exercises, getting it right every time.

"The training was a bit of a challenge, learning a new skill at an international standard, and then training the dog in that," she said.

The study in Dubai, published in June in Communications Biology, part of the British scientific journal Nature, concluded with a 98.2 per cent detection success rate.

The study used sweat samples and PCR tests from 3,290 people to compare the dogs detection abilities.

Several other countries, including Finland, the United States and France have been running their own dog training and trials of canine detection of COVID-19. ​

Falasi said the dogs currently carry out around 30-40 tests a day at airports. Bolt, a black and tan Belgian Malinois, was the first COVID-19 detection dog that he trained.

"He goes on assignments often. He has maybe done more than 1,000 COVID-19 tests," Falasi said proudly.

The dogs are mainly used in airports across the UAE, but are ready to be used wherever required.

Dubai has received requests from around the world to share knowledge about how to train dogs to sniff out COVID-19, Dubai Police's Major Salah Khalifa al-Mazroui said.

Dubai Police also has dogs trained to sniff out drugs and explosives, skills put to use as the emirate of Dubai prepares to open the Dubai Expo2020 world fair exhibition site next month.

(Reporting by Abdelhadi Ramahi. Writing by Lisa Barrington. Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)


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