Travelers arriving at Helsinki Airport are offered a voluntary coronavirus test that takes 10 seconds without the need for an annoying nasal swab. And the test is done by a dog.
On Wednesday, a pair of coronavirus-sniffing canines began work at the Finnish airport as part of a pilot program that aims to detect infections using sweat collected on incoming passenger wipes.
In recent months, international airports have introduced various methods to detect the virus in travelers, including saliva tests, temperature checks, and nasal swabs. But researchers in Finland say using dogs could prove cheaper, faster and more effective.
Dogs can detect a coronavirus-infected patient in 10 seconds, and the whole process takes a minute to complete, the researchers say. If the dog reports a positive result, the passenger is directed to the airport health center for a free virus test.
Dogs have a particularly keen sense of smell and have long been used in airports to sniff out bombs, drugs and other contraband in luggage.
They were also able to detect diseases such as cancer and malaria. So, in the midst of a pandemic, training dogs to detect Covid-19 has become an obvious choice, said Anna Hielm-Bjorkman, a researcher at the University of Helsinki who is monitoring the process.
And it looks like they are doing the job, he said. In the first phase of the trial, dogs could sniff out the virus in a person who is asymptomatic or before symptoms appear. They found this at an earlier stage than a PCR test, the most widely used diagnostic tool for the novel coronavirus.
In July, researchers at the University of Veterinary Medicine of Hanover in Germany also found that with one week of training, dogs were able to distinguish saliva samples from people infected with the coronavirus from uninfected samples with a success rate. 94%.
Dogs appear not to be easily infected with the coronavirus, although in some cases they appear to be. Other animals such as cats appear to be much more sensitive. There is no evidence that dogs develop symptoms or that they can transmit the virus to people or other animals.
How do they do it?
Sniffer dogs, which are trained to recognize the smell of the virus, detect it smell of urine or sweat samples, according to the University of Helsinki Veterinary Faculty.
Ms. Hielm-Bjorkman said she and her team had trained the dogs by making a specific sound as soon as the dogs point to a positive sample – “and yes, a treat too,” she said. When dogs sniff a negative sample, nothing happens and they move on to the next.
Wise Nose, a Finnish organization specializing in scent detection, has partnered with the faculty to train 16 dogs, four of which are starting work at the airport this week. Six are still in training and the others have not been able to work in a noisy environment.
“All dogs can be trained to smell the coronavirus, but they are individuals and not everyone can work in an airport,” said Virpi Perala, representative of Evidensia, a network of veterinary hospitals and clinics that funded the first phase. of experimentation.
Does this mean the coronavirus has a scent?
This is what the researchers believe. But what exactly dogs detect when they smell the virus is the million-dollar question, Ms. Hielm-Bjorkman said.
“We know how dogs detect it – by smell – but we still have no idea what they detect,” he said. “If we find out, we can train thousands of dogs around the world.”
Scientists in the United States they are investigating whether an infected person secretes a chemical that dogs can smell. And a French study published in June found “very high evidence” that an infected person’s sweat smell was different in a way that dogs could perceive.
Could it become a thing?
The pilot program in Finland is the first to be used at an airport. Susanna Paavilainen, the CEO of Wise Nose, said it aimed to have 10 dogs work at the airport by the end of November and Ms Hielm-Bjorkman of the University of Helsinki said she will collect data until the end of the year. .
More similar programs may be on the way. In recent months, studies conducted in Britain, France, Germany and the United States have evaluated how dogs might detect the coronavirus.
In Finland, researchers say that if pilot programs prove effective, dogs could be used in nursing homes to check on residents or in hospitals to avoid unnecessary quarantines for health workers.
But augmenting such programs could be tricky – dogs need to be trained and then assisted by their handlers once they can work outside the labs.
At Helsinki airport, two dogs worked simultaneously on Wednesday while two others rested.
Ms. Hielm-Bjorkman acknowledged that the resources were modest, at least for now. The program will try to assess how long dogs can work in a day and whether the same animals can be used to detect substances such as drugs.
Ms. Perala, from the Evidensia network, said Finland would need 700-1,000 dogs that smell the coronavirus to cover schools, shopping malls and rest homes, but more trained animals – and handlers – would be needed for even more coverage wider.
“We could keep our country open if we had enough dogs,” he said.