Could Coronavirus-Sniffing Dogs Help Save Air Travel?

Helsinki Airport in Finland is set to launch a coronavirus-sniffing-dog programme. Researchers are hoping that the canine tests, which will deliver results within 10 seconds, and require less than a minute of travellers' time, will become key in screening for COVID-19.

Researchers in other countries, including the United States and the United Arab Emirates, are studying canine coronavirus tests, but the Finnish trial is among the largest in scale and furthest along. In Dubai, health officials this summer began using dogs to analyse sweat samples from randomly selected air travellers, with more than 90 percent accuracy, according to initial results.

Changes in health can affect the way people smell, researchers say. Dogs long have been valued for their ability to sniff for drugs and bombs, and have proved able to detect cancers, infections, and other health problems.

Researchers at the University of Helsinki this year found indications that dogs can detect the virus. Scientists say only large-scale trials, such as the one to begin in Finland, can demonstrate how effective the method will be in practice.

Anna Hielm-Björkman, a researcher at the University of Helsinki explained that the dogs will sniff sweat samples and will not encounter travellers. People who agree to the test will swab their necks to produce a sample, to submit through an opening in a wall. Regardless of whether they test positive, they will be urged to take a standard polymerase chain reaction (PCR) Covid-19 test so researchers can monitor the dogs' accuracy. All tests are free for travellers arriving at the airport.

Experts have warned that canine tests, however effective, can be difficult to scale. Training is time-consuming and expensive. Even so, researchers are optimistic that it will come to play a role, even if it cannot alleviate the demands on the world's strained testing systems.

"You could open up society in another way if you had those dogs," said Hielm-Björkman, adding that the dogs could be deployed to nursing homes, schools and other places, where they may eventually come into direct contact with infected individuals.

For now, the airport trial aims to give health officials one more tool as the country prepares to cope with a potential uptick in cases, though overall numbers remain low compared with surges in several other European countries.