Coronavirus-sniffing Dogs Start Test Program in Helsinki Airport This Week
The future of coronavirus testing may go to the dogs — literally. In a pilot program launched on Tuesday at Finland’s Helsinki Airport, trained dogs are being used to detect passengers infected with COVID-19, according to a press release issued by Finnish airport operator Finavia.
The voluntary program at arrivals hall 2B is mostly geared toward those coming from international destinations. Passengers will be asked to swipe their skin using a test wipe that they will then put into a cup, which is given to the dogs. There will be no contact between the passengers and canines.
The release shows a demonstrative photo of a passenger wiping the test cloth on the inside of their wrist, while University of Helsinki researcher Anna Hielm-Björkman told The Washington Post that the sweat samples will come from rubbing the neck.
“It’s a very promising method. Dogs are very good at sniffing,” she told the Associated Press. “If it works, it will be a good screening method at any other places.”
Dogs only need 10 seconds to sniff the sample and will indicate the results through a method like laying down, paw scratching, or barking. The whole process will take place within a minute. At this time, passengers who test positive will also be asked to take a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test to double check the canine’s results, according to the AP.
“Dogs are also able to identify COVID-19 from a much smaller sample than the PCR tests used by health care professionals,” the airport release stated. “The difference is massive, as a dog only needs 10 to 100 molecules to identify the virus, whereas test equipment requires 18,000,000.”
The potential of using dogs to identify COVID-19 was first announced by the University of Helsinki in May after preliminary tests showed promise because of the species’ keen olfactory sense. “We have solid experience in training disease-related, scent-detection dogs. It was fantastic to see how fast the dogs took to the new smell,” Hielm-Björkman said at the time.
The canine crew, trained by Wise Nose, is currently made up of four dogs — named Miina, Kossi, ET, and Valo — who are working two at a time in shifts. These particular dogs had also undergone training to detect other diseases, including cancer and diabetes, according to the AP. A total of 10 dogs are in training, the airport said.
Finland isn’t the first country to turn to dogs to help detect the coronavirus in humans, as research has also been in progress in the United States and United Arab Emirates. Dubai International Airport was the first to deploy dogs to sniff out COVID-19, reporting a 92 percent accuracy rate. Meanwhile, the Helsinki Airport release says that preliminary tests showed almost 100 percent accuracy.
Additionally, dogs may be able to detect something no other form of testing can: Hielm-Björkman told The Washington Post that they “can also find [people] that are not yet PCR positive, but will become PCR positive within a week.”
While the potential of using dogs could be expanded to other facilities, like nursing homes and large-scale events, one major concern is the potentially strenuous work on the pups. “Dogs need to rest from time to time,” Wise Nose’s Anette Kare told the AP. “If the scent is easy, it doesn’t wear out the dog too much. But if there are lots of new scents around, dogs do get tired easier.“