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  • A general view of a sign informing of coronavirus-sniffing dogs as they start their work for a four-month test phase at Helsinki-Vantaa airport near Helsinki, Finland. September 23, 2020.

    A general view of a sign informing of coronavirus-sniffing dogs as they start their work for a four-month test phase at Helsinki-Vantaa airport near Helsinki, Finland. September 23, 2020. | Photo: EFE/EPA/Mauri Ratilainen

Published 24 September 2020
Opinion

Researchers say that the four trained dogs working in a pilot program at Helsinki's airport can identify the virus in seconds.

Finnish researchers hope that the state-funded pilot scheme will provide a cheap, fast, and effective alternative method of testing people for COVID-19. 

Given that dogs can detect the presence of coronavirus within 10 seconds and the entire process takes less than a minute to complete, Anna Hielm-Bjorkman, a University of Helsinki researcher overseeing the trial, finds the results very promising.

"If it works, it could prove a good screening method in other places," such as hospitals, care homes, and sporting and cultural events, she said. 

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For the program, arriving international travelers dab their skin with a wipe after collecting their luggage. In a controlled booth, the wipe is placed in a beaker next to others containing control scents, and the dog starts sniffing. The dog then indicates it has detected the virus by yelping, pawing, or lying down, in which case the passenger then takes a PCR test, with a nasal swab, to verify the dog's verdict.

The university's preliminary tests found that dogs could identify the disease with nearly 100% accuracy, even days before a patient develops symptoms. A French study in June suggested there was "very high evidence" that the sweat-odor of COVID-positive individuals was different than those without the virus, and that dogs—which have been able to identify diseases such as cancer and diabetes successfully—could detect that difference.

Airport authorities in Helsinki note that the four-month pilot program will only cost $350,000, significantly lower than laboratory-based testing methods. Better yet, dogs can not easily contract the virus as cats or mink, for example, and cannot transmit the virus to people or other animals. 
 
Researchers in Australia, Germany, France, and Britain are working on related projects. While a similar trial started at Dubai airport last month, Finland is the first European country to put dogs to work sniffing out coronavirus. Finnish organization Wise Nose is training another twelve dogs to learn to detect COVID-19, six of whom will join the four dogs—ET, Kossi, Miina, and Valo—that began working Helsinki's airport Wednesday. 
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