Coronavirus sniffing dogs! Sniffer dogs are a familiar sight at airports all over the world, where border agents use them to detect illegal substances and contraband. Presently some dogs around the world are being trained to use their noses for a different purpose. That is to detect coronavirus infected people.
Dogs specially trained to detect Covid-19 have this week started sniffing passengers as part of a trial at Finland’s Helsinki-Vantaa airport. Apart from Finland across the globe, coronavirus detector dogs are being trained in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Chile, Argentina, Brazil, and Belgium.
Volunteers in Helsinki are training a team of 15 dogs and 10 instructors for the research Programme.
The dogs can detect coronavirus in humans five days before they develop symptoms, Anna Hielm-Bjorkman, the University of Helsinki professor who is running the trial, told Reuters news agency.
“They are very good [at detecting coronavirus]. We come close to 100% sensitivity,” she said.
How is it done?
Passengers wipe their necks with cloths, which are then placed in a can and put in front of dogs to sniff. The volatile organic compounds (VOCs) given off in the sweat samples are a complex mix. So it’s likely the dogs are detecting a particular profile rather than individual compounds
Sweat is used for tests as it’s not considered infectious for COVID-19. This means it presents less risk when handling samples.
Can the dogs be infected in this process
Dogs in experimental studies have not been shown to be able to replicate the virus (within their body). Simply, they themselves are not a source of infection. Currently, there are just two case reports in the world of dogs being potentially contaminated with the COVID-19 virus by their owners. Those dogs didn’t become sick.
To further reduce any potential risk of transmission to both people and dogs, the apparatus used to train the dogs doesn’t allow any direct contact between the dog’s nose and the sweat sample.
The dog’s nose goes into a stainless steel cone, with the sweat sample in a receptacle behind. This allows free access to the volatile olfactory compounds but no physical contact.
Furthermore, all the dogs trained to detect COVID-19 are regularly checked by nasal swab tests, rectal swab tests and blood tests to identify antibodies. So far, none of the detector dogs has been found to be infected.
The training period for man’s best friend
To properly train a dog to detect SARS-CoV-2, it takes:
- 6-8 weeks for a dog that is already trained to detect other scents, or
- 3-6 months for a dog that has never been trained.