COVID-19: Helsinki airport uses sniffer dogs to detect infections, and the results are promising

A few months ago, researchers were testing the possibility of using sniffer dogs to detect cases of COVID-19 at airports. Recently, as part of the Helsinki pilot project, scientists claim that dogs can identify the virus in seconds, with close to 100% reliability.

As part of a state-funded pilot project, four sniffer dogs specially trained to detect infections with the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus have started work at Helsinki Airport, Finland. This should provide a cheap, fast and efficient alternative method of testing travelers, the Finnish researchers hope.

According to Anna Hielm-Björkman of the University of Helsinki, who is overseeing the trial, a dog is able to detect the presence of the coronavirus in 10 seconds, and the entire identification process takes less than a minute. ” It is very promising “Said Hielm-Björkman. “ If it works, it could prove to be a good screening method in other places such as hospitals, nursing homes and at sporting and cultural events. “.

After collecting their luggage, arriving international passengers are asked to dab their skin with a wipe. In a separate booth, a cup containing the wipe is then placed next to others, containing different control scents, which the dog begins to sniff.

Indicative and not definitive screening

To indicate that it has detected the virus, the dog usually acts by yelping, fiddling with the wipe, or lying on the floor. The passenger is then advised to take a free standard polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, using a nasal swab, to verify the dog’s verdict.

In preliminary tests at the premises of the University of Helsinki, the dogs – which have previously been used successfully to detect diseases such as cancer and diabetes – were able to identify the virus with an accuracy of nearly 100%, even a few days before a patient shows symptoms.

Sniffer dog Miina, trained to detect coronavirus from samples of arriving passengers, at Helsinki Airport in Vantaa (Finland), September 15, 2020. Credits: Reuters

A capacity still poorly understood

Researchers don’t yet know exactly what dogs sniff out when they detect the virus. A French study published in June concluded that there was “a great deal of evidence” that the smell of sweat from people infected with the virus is different from that of uninfected people, and that dogs can detect this difference.

Dogs are also able to identify COVID-19 from a much smaller molecular sample than those used for PCR tests, requiring only 10 to 100 molecules to detect the presence of the virus, compared to the 18m required for laboratory equipment.

Authorities in Vantaa, the city where Helsinki International Airport is located, said the pilot program (which is to run for four months) costs 300,000 euros, which is significantly lower than laboratory test methods.

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Regarding the risk to animals, be aware that dogs do not have the receptors necessary for the virus to settle easily and do not seem to be infected often, according to Hielm-Björkman. There is no evidence that they can transmit the virus to humans or other animals.

A Finnish organization specializing in training animals in odor detection, Wise Nose, is training a total of 16 dogs for the project, 10 of which should eventually be able to work at the airport. Work in teams of two began on Wednesday.

Researchers from other countries like Australia, France, Germany and Great Britain are said to be already working on similar projects, but Finland is the first country in Europe to put dogs to work to detect the coronavirus . A similar trial began at Dubai International Airport last month.

Helsinki airport uses sniffer dogs to detect covid-19 infections

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