Anti-Covid dog units at the airport: Labrador virus-sniffing experiment in South Africa
Labrador virus-sniffing experiment in South Africa. Experiment starts at Johannesburg airport with dogs trained to detect a positive coronavirus by sweat particles
South Africa, one of the countries hardest hit by the Covid-19 pandemic in Africa and the world, is developing a new way of detecting positive people at airports quickly and safely: using the dogs’ sense of smell.
Labrador vs Covid in South Africa: dog units in the field at Johannesburg airport
It’s happening at O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, where professional trainers are working with Labradors to use their noses to detect people who are Covid positive.
Covid, like many other diseases – such as certain types of cancer – develops a particular odour that dogs can recognise.
And with a 95 per cent chance of success, man’s best friends are already being used successfully at airports around the world, from Finland to the United Arab Emirates.
Training dogs to recognise infected people by their sense of smell “is quite simple”, according to trainer Chelsea Mercado, who told Radio France Internationale: “We use a testing laboratory that provides us with samples of people’s sweat, both covid-positive and covid-negative, then we teach the dogs which sample to find and how to point it out to humans, for example by sitting down.
When they find it correctly, we give the dog a reward, so they understand that they need to look for that specific smell.
Johannesburg, the activity of MacGyver, the labrador that sniffs out Covid before the swab
The dog Mercado is working with expresses confidence: his name is MacGyver, after the undercover agent from a popular US TV series who could solve the missions he was given with relative ease.
MacGyver is accompanied by seven other Labradors, part of a pilot project whose details are still being worked out.
“The most complex aspect is how to get the anti-covid dogs to sniff out the passengers,” said the head of the agency specialising in dog trainers, Gideon Treurnich.
According to the expert, the animals could be allowed to approach passengers at the checkpoint, or people could be asked to hand over a saliva sample so that the dogs can operate in a separate area.
This would provide ‘privacy and would not frighten people who are afraid of dogs’.
South Africa has recorded more than 1.5 million infections since the start of the pandemic and 54,000 deaths.
The vaccination campaign started late, because the emergence of an indigenous variant of the virus rendered government-purchased vaccine stocks ineffective.
However, the authorities are aware that the vaccine will not completely prevent the virus from circulating, and the formation of anti-Covid dog units is one of the strategies to be implemented to contain contagions and, above all, hospitalisations.