Helsinki Airport is getting creative when it comes to operating safely in the age of COVID-19. Beginning this week, travelers arriving at Finland’s busiest international airport will have the opportunity to take a voluntary coronavirus test that takes 10 seconds and is entirely painless — but it’s not the test that is unusual, rather, it’s who is conducting it.
The new state-funded pilot program uses coronavirus-sniffing canines to detect the presence of the virus within 10 seconds with shocking accuracy. Preliminary results from the trial show that the dogs, who have been used previously to detect illnesses such as cancer and malaria, were able to identify the virus with nearly 100% accuracy.
FILE – Sniffer dog Miina, being trained to detect the coronavirus from the arriving passengers’ samples, works in Helsinki Airport in Vantaa, Finland, Sept. 15, 2020.
Many of the dogs were able to detect the coronavirus long before a patient developed symptoms, something even laboratory tests fail to do.
After passengers arrive at Helsinki from abroad and have collected their luggage, they are invited to wipe their necks with a cloth to collect sweat samples that are then placed into an intake box. In a separate booth, a dog handler places the box alongside several cans containing various scents and the canine goes to work.
Researchers have yet to identify what it is exactly the dogs sniff when they detect the virus, but a preliminary study published in June found there was “very high evidence” that the sweat odors of a COVID-19-positive person were different from those who do not have the virus. This is key, as dogs are able to detect the difference thanks to their sharp sense of smell.
If the dog flags the sample as positive, the passenger is directed to the airport’s health center for a free PCR virus test.
While there have been instances that an animal contracts the coronavirus, dogs do not seem to be easily infected. There is no evidence that dogs can pass the virus on to people or other animals.
Sniffer dogs Valo, left, and E.T., who are trained to detect the coronavirus disease from the arriving passengers’ samples, sit next to their trainers at Helsinki Airport in Vantaa, Finland, Sept. 22, 2020.
Scientists in other countries, such as France, Germany and Britain, are engaging in similar research, but Finland is the first country in Europe to put dogs to work to sniff out the coronavirus.
Finnish researchers say that if the pilot program proves to be effective, dogs could be used to quickly and efficiently screen visitors in spaces such as retirement homes or hospitals to help avoid unnecessary quarantines for health care workers.
Representatives from the University of Helsinki, who are conducting the trial, said Finland would need between 700 and 1,000 specially trained coronavirus-sniffing dogs in order to cover schools, malls and retirement homes. For broader coverage, even more trained animals— and their trainers— would be required.