The Helsinki airport in the Finnish city of Vantaa recently began testing passengers for COVID-19 in a very unique way — by using dogs. The program is currently in the trial stage, with researchers hoping that it will provide a speedy, cheap way of COVID-19 testing. According to Anna Hielm-Björkman from the University of Helsinki, who is overseeing the trial, a dog is capable of detecting COVID-19 within 10 seconds, with the entire testing process complete in as little as a minute.
Sniffing out COVID-19
When passengers arrive at the airport, their luggage is collected and they are asked to dab their skin with a wipe. The wipe is then placed next to other wipes of different control scents. The dogs are then made to sniff the wipes. If the dog thinks that a specific wipe is infected with the virus, it will paw, yelp, or lie down. The authorities then instruct the passenger to take a Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test to verify the dog’s conclusion.
During the preliminary test conducted at the University of Helsinki, dogs were found to be able to detect coronavirus with almost 100 percent accuracy. Scientists believe that the odor of the sweat from people infected with COVID-19 is different from that of uninfected people, which is what enables the dog to identify those who carry the virus. In addition, the animals are able to detect coronavirus from a far smaller molecular sample than the PCR tests. While a PCR test needs 18 million molecules to confirm the presence of the virus, dogs only need 10 to 100 molecules.
“We are among the pioneers. As far as we know no other airport has attempted to use canine scent detection on such a large scale against covid-19. We are pleased with the city of Vantaa’s initiative. This might be an additional step forward on the way to beating covid-19,” Airport Director Ulla Lettijeff said in a statement. The dogs at the airport are being trained by Wise Nose, an organization that specializes in training animals to detect scents.
At present, Wise Nose is training 16 dogs for the COVID-19 detection project, of which 10 are soon expected to be working at the airport. Official COVID-19 testing with dogs can only be implemented nationwide once the necessary legislative amendments are made. The pilot program, which will last for four months, costs around US$352,668, which is much lower than lab tests. Countries like Germany, Britain, France, and Australia are also reportedly conducting similar research. However, Finland has become the first country in Europe to use dogs to test for COVID-19.
Pets and COVID-19 risk
Animals are usually not at risk of contracting COVID-19. However, there have been minor cases of cats and dogs being infected with COVID-19, getting it from close contact with people. As such, even if the risk of such human-to-animal transmission is low, it is better to treat your dogs and cats the same way you are treating family members right now — keep some distance from each other and do not interact with outsiders.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends pet owners to keep their animals at least 6 feet from human contact. The organization has warned people against putting masks on pets since such a move could cause harm to the animals. If you suspect that the pet is showing symptoms of coronavirus, get in touch with a veterinarian.