These days, most people will do almost anything to stay clear of the coronavirus. That could easily look like all-day mask wearing with face shields on top or even hand sanitizer slathered on like lotion. Businesses all over the world have been following suit, doing whatever they can to keep clients and customers safe. While prevention has certainly been the biggest response to COVID-19, detection is definitely the next step in eradicating this pandemic. As the world tries to get back to normal life and as global travel continues, airports have become worrisome for travelers everywhere. Thankfully, folks at the Helsinki Airport in Finland have come up with what might seem like the best possible detection solution for the moment.
As a way to detect COVID-19 faster, Helsinki Airport has found help on all fours—four legs that is. According to this article, the airport staff at Helsinki is using a team of scent-tracking dogs to sniff out those that are currently infected with the coronavirus. It’s possibly the first attempt at utilizing dogs for mass-scale detection. The method promises efficiency in the process. If this proves to be true, it can very well change the pandemic scenario worldwide. Finavia airport director Ulla Lettijeff claims that Finland is among the pioneers in this effort. No other airport in the world currently utilizes canine scent detection for this purpose and on such a larger setting.
People with allergies need not express concern about the initiative either. Unlike the usual process of dog detecting, travelers will have absolutely no contact with canines when it comes to COVID testing. The test is performed with the use of special wipes that are swiped on passengers’ skins. The individual wipes are then placed in cups in a separate location, where a specially trained dog will come in and smell the samples. These dogs are trained to perform a specific action as soon as COVID-19 is detected.
As it turns out, people with COVID-19 produce sweat that has an odor detectable by trained detection dogs. A French biological study confirmed this statement. However, not much is known as to why or how detection dogs do so. The study also states that dogs can detect differences in perspiration with up to 95% accuracy. Although that’s not a bad rate in any measure, it isn’t a perfect system.
Another study from Germany states that detection in saliva differences of healthy persons with that of COVID-infected persons can have up to 94% accuracy. There’s another research at the University of Helsinki that dramatically increases the rate of detection accuracy to almost 100%. The research has surprised many because of these percentages, but it certainly isn’t the first time we’ve seen trained detection dogs do. From sniffing dangerous goods to diseases such as cancer, detection dogs have impressed us many times in the past. But given the circumstances of the pandemic today, this particular skill brings much hope in the fight against COVID.
Although this level of accuracy may be as promising as ever, it’s the speed of testing that’s really going to make a big difference. Most laboratory tests currently available to test for COVID require some time for results to emerge and get validated. Sometimes it could take up to three days or more for results to get back. At that point, the person getting tested could’ve easily passed the virus along unsuspectingly. In addition, laboratory tests require a larger sample from a potential carrier—about 18 million molecules that can either be drawn through blood testing or swabbed through the nose. The dog detection process, on the other hand, requires only a small sample of 10 to 100 molecules—something that a simple wipe swab on the skin would give.
Airport travelers that have indicated a positive result through this dog detection process will immediately be directed to a health information area, where they can receive further instructions on how to proceed. At the moment, there are 10 dogs being trained for the program, and all of these dogs have had some previous experience with trained detection. The dogs will work in shifts, and every shift will have 4 dogs. This pilot program will run for 4 months. At that point, it will undergo an assessment to determine what the next steps should be, whether to continue the program, improve it, or discontinue. The goal is to eventually replace the humans that are currently the ones performing the testing on incoming passengers.
The safety of the dogs exposed to the virus is of utmost importance, of course. While dogs can also test positive to COVID-19, the virus doesn’t seem to pose any threat to canines. They are also incapable of transmitting the virus to other animals. Although these are all positive qualities that make these dogs extremely suitable for the job, it’s important to remember that dogs will get tired from the work. For the success of the pilot program, it’s highly necessary to give these dogs proper care, nutrition, and rest in order for them to do their work properly. Taking shifts is a great start, but we’re looking to see more dogs undergoing training as soon as the program seems to bring positive results.
We’re already seeing a positive response regarding the program, as more countries are getting on board. Other countries such as Chile, Brazil, France, Saudi Arabia, and Australia are looking into the use of trained detection dogs as a safer and faster alternative to identifying persons infected with COVID-19. We can predict more countries and entities to follow suit in the coming months. Therefore, it’s even more imperative now to emphasize the care and attention these dogs will need in order to perform their new duties and responsibilities. It’s the least we can do for our furry friends that have once again proven to be man’s ultimate best friends.
Photo via Finavia