Dogs have amazing noses that can detect cancer and even smell an oncoming epileptic seizure. So not long after it became clear that COVID-19 had become a global pandemic, researchers worldwide began training dogs to sniff out the coronavirus in humans.
These projects have been successful — dogs can detect the coronavirus in humans from a simple dab of the skin with a wipe. Now, COVID-sniffing canines are currently being tested at international airports in two countries, with more likely to begin soon.
Officials collect samples from travelers arriving at the airport and arrange them in an isolated room for inspection. Trained K-9 police dogs sniff cones containing samples in the room and alert their trainers to samples from people potentially infected with COVID-19. You can watch the process in this video posted on YouTube by the Emirates News Agency.
Major Salah Khalifa Al Mazrouei, director of Dubai Police Security Inspection K9 Unit, says the UAE has been the first to train police dogs for this purpose, and they’re in direct contact with training experts in U.K. and France. Over a three-week period at the airport, the unit conducted approximately 400 tests with about 91% accuracy.
“Samples are taken in collaboration with partners from Dubai Health Authority from travelers, and dogs sniff them to detect the virus,” Major Al Mazroui told Gulf News. “If the sample turns out positive, the dog will sit in front of it. It only takes a few minutes.”
In Finland, Helsinki Airport began testing four COVID-sniffing dogs in mid-September. Researchers at the Veterinary Faculty of the University of Helsinki report that preliminary testing shows that the trained dogs might perform better than available testing. Not only can the dogs detect the virus with 94-100% certainty, depending on the dog, but they can also identify it days before someone who is infected has symptoms. Dogs only require 10-100 molecules to identify the virus, compared to the 18,000,000 molecules required by test equipment.
“We have 10 dogs that can reliably work in the airport environment,” University of Helsinki research coordinator and Nose Academy CEO Susanna Paavilainen said in a statement. “Some of the dogs will remain as laboratory dogs, that will sniff samples in very calm circumstances without distractions. The work shifts of a dog proceed in terms of the dogs’ endurance, so we always have two dogs ready to step in while two others are on a work shift.”
The Helsinki Airport tweeted a photo of one of the dogs with a trainer.
“Covid-19 dogs started their work today at the Helsinki Airport at arrival hall 2B,” the airport tweeted. “Dogs have been trained to detect the coronavirus from the test wipes given by the testperson.”
Covid-19 dogs started their work today at the Helsinki Airport at arrival hall 2B. Dogs have been trained to detect the coronavirus from the test wipes given by the testperson. Service is voluntary and primarily targeted for passengers arriving from abroad. pic.twitter.com/ieMLm0KuZY
— Helsinki Airport (@HelsinkiAirport) September 22, 2020
Airport passengers arrive at the sampling station, take their own skin swipes and place them into provided containers. The samples are delivered to the dog and trainer behind a wall where the dog sniffs the samples. Travelers with positive results are directed to the Helsinki University Hospital’s health information station for further instructions.
Dominique Grandjean, a professor at France’s National Veterinary School of Alfort, is leading a research study on coronavirus-sniffing dogs. He told The Guardian he hopes the dogs his team is training will be able to help at nursing homes and retirement homes as well.
“We can have one dog per retirement house that is trained and this dog would be able every single morning to check everybody, just by walking by,” Grandjean said.