Sniffing Labrador retrievers join Thai coronavirus fight

Thailand has started deploying a canine virus-detecting squad to help identify people with COVID-19 as the country faces a surge in cases

BANGKOK -- Thailand has started deploying a canine virus-detecting squad in hopes of quickly identifying people with COVID-19 as the country faces a surge in cases, with clusters at construction sites, crowded slum communities and large markets.

Angel, Bobby and Bravo are among six Labrador retrievers that have been trained by researchers at the Faculty of Veterinary Science at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University to sniff out a unique odor that people with COVID-19 produce in their sweat, the researchers say.

Since May 10, the three have tested more than 1,000 samples from college staff, students and people outside the university.

The results so far are impressive with a success rate of nearly 95%.

After a few seconds of sniffing sweat samples placed in metal containers, the dogs can tell which people have COVID-19. If there’s no trace of infection, the dog will walk pass the sample. If it is positive, it will sit in front of it.

Suwanna Thanaboonsombat, a volunteer who collects samples to bring to the lab, said the canine testers add a big element of convenience because they can check samples from people who can't go out to be tested.

“People can simply put cotton balls underneath their armpits to collect sweat samples and send them to the lab. And the result is quite accurate,” Suwanna said.

The researchers plan to send the canine team out to communities suspected of being new COVID-19 hotspots. The dogs will work inside a mobile unit, while the collecting team can comb through the community collecting samples.

Kaywalee said that while dogs can provide a fast and cheap testing alternative, they do have limitations.

“5 p.m. is their dinner time. When it’s around 4:50, they will start to be distracted. So, you can’t really have them work anymore. And we can’t have them working after dinner either because they need a nap. They are living animals and we do have to take their needs and emotions into consideration,” she said.

“But for me, they are heroes and heroines.”

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