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

(Corrects throughout to clarify Dubai police sniffer dogs are not currently being used at airports, corrects accuracy figure in first paragraph, corrects location of study in paragraph 8)

By Abdelhadi Ramahi

DUBAI (Reuters) -Police in Dubai have built up a special unit of 38 sniffer dogs that can detect COVID-19 from human sweat samples with 92% accuracy, the supervisor of the training programme told Reuters.

Dubai Police trained the cohort, which includes German Shepherds, Labradors, Cocker Spaniels and Border Collies, to recognise 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 programme at the K9 training centre in Dubai's Awir region.

In the centre'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.

Airports in the United Arab Emirates were one the first in the world to trial canine COVID-19 detection in 2020. The dogs are no longer used in UAE's airports, but they are ready to be deployed wherever required.

A study of dogs ability to detect COVID-19 infections carried out by the UAE's Higher Colleges of Technology and Abu Dhabi's Federal Customs Authority published in June in Communications Biology, part of the British scientific journal Nature, concluded with a 98.2% detection success rate.

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

The 92% detection rate Falasi referred to came from a study under the UAE's Ministry of Interior in the first half of 2020, as reported by state news agency WAM.

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. 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.

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 BarringtonEditing by Raissa Kasolowsky)