They say dogs are man’s best friend, but could they potentially help fight the spread of novel coronavirus? It’s now a possibility. This week, Finland deployed coronavirus-sniffing dogs at the Helsinki Airport. Four dogs are taking part in a four-month trial on an alternative test method that is cost-friendly and quick for travelers.
The four dogs (ET, Kossi, Miina, and Valo) were trained by Finland’s Smell Detection Association as part of a government-financed trial, the Associated Press reports. Previously, the animals underwent training to detect diseases like cancer and diabetes.
How Dogs Smell for COVID-19
The dogs are now being tested on-site with passengers who agree to take a free test. They do not have direct physical access to the dog. Instead, they are asked to swipe their skin with a wipe. Then, the wipe is placed in a jar and presented to a dog waiting in a separate booth.
Within ten seconds, the dogs sniff the sample and give test results by scratching a paw, laying down, or barking. The entire process should take around one minute. If the passenger tests positive, they are given a standard COVID-19 test to check the dog’s accuracy.
Researchers in several countries — Australia, France, Germany, England, and the US — are also studying if dogs can smell coronavirus. The Finnish trial is one of the largest so far.
Global Research Races to Train Dogs
Together with Medical Detection Dogs and Durham University, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) is preparing a project that trains dogs to sniff out the virus. They are currently searching for COVID-positive volunteers to provide samples to train the dogs.
Their previous work found that dogs could detect odors from humans with a malaria infection with high accuracy, and they hope that they can replicate the detection with COVID-19.
“It’s early days for COVID-19 odor detection,” Professor James Logan, Head of the Department of Disease Control at LSHTM, said in a press release. “We do not know if COVID-19 has a specific odor yet, but we know that other respiratory diseases change our body odor so there is a chance that it does. And if it does dogs will be able to detect it. This new diagnostic tool could revolutionize our response to COVID-19.”
Once trained, dogs could be stationed at ports or high-travel areas to identify travelers infected with novel coronavirus. The new program is not targeted for all dog breeds. LHSTM is working with specific dogs such as a cocker spaniel and a labrador retriever, which possess an acute sense of smell and the ability to be trained.
Durham University (UK) Professor Steve Lindsay said, “If the research is successful, we could use COVID-19 detection dogs at airports at the end of the epidemic to rapidly identify people carrying the virus. This would help prevent the re-emergence of the disease after we have brought the present epidemic under control.”