Good-boy: COVID-19 sniffing dogs offer hope for airports

Shutterstock / Dragosh Co

A pilot project in Helsinki, Finland, has proof that sniffer dogs can detect coronavirus as accurately as PCR tests. This cheaper and faster way of testing could be implemented in the airports. 

In Finland’s Helsinki-Vantaa Airport (HEL) three dogs, Kossi, ET and Miina, are sniffing swabs of arriving passengers.  Around 100 arriving passengers a day are asked to queue up for the test and swab their skin with a wipe. A sniffer dog passes the negative samples but is attracted to the positive one. The passenger with a positive result then gets a nasal PCR test in order to verify the results.  So far, around 2,200 passengers have participated in the experiment.

The research will be completed in December 2020. However, scientists already see promising results. Timo Aronkyto, the deputy mayor of Vantaa, said there were 16,000-17,000 PCR tests conducted at the airport with less than one percent positive. Dog-found results showed about the same percentage. Previous experiments showed that dogs had “close to 100 percent accuracy, up to five days earlier than a PCR test.” 

Project manager Soile Turunen commented that arriving passengers did the testing voluntarily and had an overall positive experience. 

Vantaa city authorities said the four-month pilot project costs €300,000. It is lower than the price of testing conducted in laboratories. 

Finland is the first country in Europe to use dogs for sniffing out the coronavirus. The UAE is considered the first country in the world to put this method into action at its airports.

Devastated by the pandemic, airlines are implementing the idea of pre-flight testing. A successful testing could bring back trust in air travel and reopen routes. For instance, United Airlines is set to launch a COVID-19 testing pilot program that will run November 16 to December 11, 2020. The UK’s first pre-departure airport rapid testing facility was set at London Heathrow Airport (LHR), for now, only passengers traveling to Hong Kong are able to book a test. 

Sniffing-dog testing could potentially offer a faster, cheaper and less painful alternative to PCR testing, used in airports as well as other large facilities. However, as it is only a pilot program, further research needs to be made. “Regardless of the nature of the dog’s detection system and the fact that biology will never be an exact science, both false positive and  false negative errors occur in every single detection system, including highly sophisticated machines”, commented Alfort school of veterinary medicine (France) that also conducts trials with detection dogs. 

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