Dogs nose in as airport COVID detectors

Could dogs be the ultimate COVID-19 contact tracer and help reduce the spread of the deadly virus? That's what a pilot project at Finland's Helsinki Airport is hoping to prove.

The voluntary canine tests deliver results within 10 seconds and require less than a minute of a travellers’ time, says Anna Hielm-Björkman, a researcher at the University of Helsinki who is using the trial to gather data, according to a story in the Washington Post.

While several countries, including the United States and the United Arab Emirates have been digging in to find out if canine coronavirus tests work, Finland is ahead of the pack, says the Post story.

And already, there's good news. "These detector dogs are trained using sweat samples from people infected with COVID-19. When introduced to a line of sweat samples, most dogs can detect a positive one from a line of negative ones with 100% accuracy," says a piece in The Conversation.

According to researchers, our furry friends are already enlisted to sniff out Parkinson's disease and cancer; changes in health can affect the way people smell.

They're also front and center at airports as four-legged drug detectors and bomb sniffers. Now, while there isn't a certainty, researchers say that canines could be trained to smell the virus in humans, says a CBC story. 

In fact, according to preliminary research, dogs may be better at spotting coronavirus infections than PCR and antibody tests. They “can also find [people] that are not yet PCR positive but will become PCR positive within a week,” Hielm-Björkman says in the Post story.

The University of Pennsylvania is training dogs to smell low concentrations of volatile organic compounds found in the saliva, blood, breath, and urine of humans.

"The potential impact of these dogs and their capacity to detect COVID-19 could be substantial," says Dr. Cynthia Otto, director of Penn Vet Working Dog Center, in a news release. "This study will harness the dog's extraordinary ability to support the nation's COVID-19 surveillance systems, with the goal of reducing community spread."

It's hoped the dogs will help quickly test large groups of people, including asymptomatic carriers of the virus, and especially in environments like office buildings and hospitals, says the release.

There isn't a similar study announced in Canada.