Sniffing dogs trained to detect coronavirus have been put to the test at Helsinki airport in Finland and with “close to 100% accuracy” according to the trainers in charge of the pilot scheme.
The state-funded program started with four dogs and is expected to become an alternative not only cheap and fast but highly efficient to detect people with the virus.
It also could be a step forward on the way to controlling the spread of COVID-19 among travelers at airports and flights.
A total of 10 dogs are being trained for the job.
Finland is not the only country to experiment with training dogs to sniff COVID-19 but seems to be the first to start a trial program at an airport in Europe. A similar trial started at Dubai International Airport last month.
“Researchers in countries including Australia, France, Chile, Germany and Britain are reportedly working on similar project,” reports The Guardian.
Chilean and Australian dogs
Scientists at the University of Adelaide in Australia are training dogs to identify COVID-19 in people as one of international research efforts for screening people for coronavirus not only at airports but also at hospitals and quarantine facilities.
In Chile, police are training sniffer dogs to detect the coronavirus in people’s sweat. The dogs, Reuters reports, have previously been trained to detect other diseases including malaria, cancer and Parkinson’s disease.
“The idea is that our dogs would be in busy places such as schools, bus terminals and airports,” the director of the police specialty training school said.
Dogs learn fast and work faster
Early results show that dogs can be trained very fast and are able to identify infected individuals before they show symptoms, or even in those who are asymptomatic. Dogs that have been trained to detect other illnesses like cancer or diabetes can identify the Coronavirus with 100% accuracy, the Helsinki researchers have found.
Almost all the dogs participating in COVID-19 identification training have done scent detection before.
How long it takes to learn to identify coronavirus depends on the dog’s background, the Finland trainers said. One of the dogs that will soon work at Helsinki Airport is an eight-year-old greyhound mix named Kössi, who learned to identify the scent in just seven minutes.
“Not all dogs can do it as they operate in different ways,” researchers said. “Kössi has a lot of experience from identifying biological samples.”
Extremely accurate sniffers
Eight dogs from the German armed forces trained for just a week as part of a joint study at the University of Veterinary Medicine Hannover were able to identify people infected with the coronavirus with 94% accuracy.
The experiment challenged the dogs to sniff out COVID-19 in the saliva of more than 1,000 healthy and infected people.
The sense of smell in dogs is about 1,000 times more sensitive than humans and according to Anna Hielm-Björkman of the University of Helsinki, who is overseeing the trial at the airport, dogs can detect the presence of the coronavirus within 10 seconds.
The entire process at the airport takes less than a minute and the expectations are high around the pilot project that the dogs could become an efficient method of ensuring health and safety at airports.
Taking a COVID-19 dog test at Helsinki Airport does not include direct contact with the dog. “Instead, the dog will perform its work in a separate booth,” a Helsinki Finavia airport official explained. “Those taking the test will swipe their skin with a test wipe and drop it into a cup, which is then given to the dog. This also protects the dog’s handler from infections. All the tests are processed anonymously.”
If the test result is positive, the passenger will be directed to a health information point maintained by the city of Vantaa, and located at the airport.
What do they smell?
Nobody seems to be sure of the precise substance that the dogs recognize when they detect the virus. An earlier French study published in June suggested that the sweat of COVID-positive people has a different smell to those who do not carry the illness, a difference in odor detectable by the dogs.
“Dogs are also able to identify COVID-19 from a much smaller sample than the PCR tests used by health care professionals,” Finavia reported. “The difference is massive, as a dog only needs 10-100 molecules to identify the virus, whereas test equipment requires 18,000,000.”
The dogs’ sensitive noses are expected to speed up the process of identifying those infected with COVID-19 and the total cost of the four-month pilot, according to officials in Vantaa, the city where the Helsinki international airport is located, is €300,000 — significantly lower than laboratory-based testing methods..
“As far as we know, no other airport has attempted to use canine scent detection on such a large scale against COVID-19,” said Airport Director Ulla Lettijeff. We are pleased with the city of Vantaa’s initiative. This might be an additional step forward on the way to beating COVID-19.”
In the future, dogs could be deployed to detect infections not only at airports but also at border crossings, hospitals, care homes and sporting and cultural events.