Dogs Sniff Out Corona Infections at Finnish Airport

  • If there’s a prize for the most adorable public health program, these pooches need to win it.

“They’re all good dogs, Brent,” an online personality once said. While that is true, some dogs might be a bit better than others. Or at least some of them can hold down a job.

The K-9 unit is old news to anyone who knows anything about the police force. Dogs also serve in the army, the fire department, and they help the visually impaired get around more easily.


Some dogs are even trying to become dog-tors. A 2019 study found that pooches can be trained to accurately sniff out the presence of cancer cells in blood.

In a similar vein, some medical mutts are now tackling the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In Finland, sharp-nosed dogs have been brought in to sniff out potential coronavirus infections at the country’s largest airport.

The COVID-sniffing dogs have good timing, too. After the first wave of the ‘Rona abated, countries around the world started loosening movement restrictions. Some even allowed travel again.

Turns out, that may have been a mistake. According to the World Health Organization’s regional director for Europe Hans Kluge, the continent could be facing another, potentially even more serious corona wave, reported the BBC.

New cases in Europe have doubled over the past couple of weeks, with 300,000 new infections discovered just within one week.

“Although these numbers reflect more comprehensive testing, it also shows alarming rates of transmission across the region,” Kluge said.

“Good Lord, she reeks of the ‘Rona! Get her off me!”

Canine Pioneers

To try and cope with the surging infection rate, Finavia – the company responsible for maintaining Finland’s airport network – turned to dogs for help.

Since yesterday, the COVID canines have been patrolling the Helsinki Airport in the city of Vantaa.

“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,” says Helsinki Airport Director Ulla Lettijeff.

Finavia is training a total of 10 dogs for tracking potential corona infections at the airport. They will work in shifts, with four dogs active at one time.

According to Susanna Paavilainen, CEO of WiseNose Ry, University of Helsinki’s DogRisk research group, the length of the work shift will depend on the dogs.

“Dogs need to rest from time to time. While two dogs are working, the other two are on a break,” Paavilainen says.

The dogs will mainly be sniffing travelers arriving to Finland from outside the country. If you’re scared of dogs, though, there’s no need to delay your trip to Finland. At least not because of the dogs.

The smell experts will perform their duties from a separate booth without coming into direct contact with travelers. People taking the test will swipe their skin with a test wipe and drop it into a cup.

The cup is then given to the COVID dogs for analysis. If they smell something sick, the traveler will be directed to a health information desk operated by the city of Vantaa.

“We are pleased with the city of Vantaa’s initiative. This might be an additional step forward on the way to beating COVID-19,” Lettijeff says.

Flesh Beats Metals

If a dog sniffing out a COVID infection sounds like an arbitrary detection method to you, think again. Research carried out before the start of Finavia’s project showed that the dogs are more efficient than expensive machinery.

The preliminary tests – carried out at the Veterinary Faculty of the University of Helsinki – found that dogs can sniff out COVID-19 with pretty much 100% accuracy. They can even smell the presence of the virus days before the test subject shows the first symptoms.

It turns out that a dog’s nose is much more sensitive to the coronavirus than the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests doctors usually use. A PCR test requires 18 million molecules to be present in a sample before it notices the virus.

A dog only needs 100, or even as little as 10 molecules. So which one would you rather trust?

The Next Generation

In the future, dogs from the Finnish Customs might take over the duties of the current dogs.

“We are working with Finnish Customs to prepare for a potential scenario where it takes charge of the operation,” says Paavilainen.

However, for the time being, the WiseNose dogs will continue their task. For the customs to take over, the Finnish government will need to pass a corresponding legislative amendment.

It will also take some time to train the customs dogs to recognize the COVID-19 virus. According to Paavilainen, almost all of the current dogs have previously performed scent detection duties.

The time it takes to train a dog can also vary, as it’s completely dependent on the dog in question. The star of the current program is Kössi, an 8-year-old greyhound mix.

He learned to pick up the scent of the coronavirus in a mere seven minutes. Talk about a fast learner.

“Not all dogs can do it as they operate in different ways. Kössi has a lot of experience from identifying biological samples,” Paavilainen says.

Such a good boy.

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