The future of coronavirus testing may go to the dogs — literally. This is as Finland’s Helsinki Airport welcomed a new team of four-legged employees. The four dogs—Kössi, Miina, Valo and E.T.—are experts at sniffing sweaty wipes for signs that a traveler is infected with the virus that causes Covid-19. If the dog detects COVID-19, they will make a physical sign.
Speaking to sciencealert.com, airport director Ulla Lettijeff of aviation company Finavia said “We are among the pioneers,” “As far as we know no other airport has attempted to use canine scent detection on such a large scale against COVID-19. We are pleased with the city of Vantaa’s initiative.
This might be an additional step forward on the way to beating COVID-19.”
For people with allergies, or fear of dogs, there’s no reason to worry. The passengers will have no direct contact with the canine COVID-19 detectives.
Why the dogs can detect the virus is not entirely clear. However, a recent French study found that dogs trained to smell the difference between armpit sweat from healthy people and those with COVID-19 could do so with 95 percent certainty.
And researchers at the Veterinary Faculty of the University of Helsinki say their dogs could detect COVID-19 with a similar level of certainty – “almost 100 percent”, according to Finavia’s announcement of the scheme.
“This research has exceeded our expectations,” veterinarian Anna Hielm-Björkman of the University of Helsinki told national broadcaster Yle.
“The dogs have identified cancer and other diseases in the past, but we have been surprised at how much easier it is for the dogs to spot corona.”
But it’s not just the accuracy that matters here. There’s the speed of the test; with a laboratory test, results take some time. Dogs can also detect the virus sooner than laboratory tests, days before symptoms appear.
And they require a much smaller sample – 10 to 100 molecules, as opposed to the 18 million required for laboratory tests, Finavia said. Passengers for whom the dogs indicate a positive result will be directed to a health information point located in the airport. Ten dogs are being trained for the task, all of whom have had previous scent detection experience. Each shift will consist of four dogs.
“Dogs need to rest from time to time,” said Susanna Paavilainen of WiseNose, a company that specialises in training scent detection dogs.
“While two dogs are working, the other two are on a break. The service is mainly intended for passengers arriving from outside the country.” The dogs themselves should be safe.
Dogs can test positive to COVID-19, but, according to a study from May of this year, it seems to pose them no health hazards, and don’t seem able to transmit the virus to other animals.
The pilot program, according to The Guardian, is scheduled to run for four months, after which the results will be assessed.
If it goes well, sniffer dogs may eventually replace the humans currently testing incoming passengers for the coronavirus. Meanwhile, Finland is not the only country riding the dog train. Other countries, such as Saudi Arabia, France, Chile, Australia and Brazil are also investigating the employment of scent detection dogs for faster, safer detection of COVID-19.