For decades, scientists have studied the efficacy of dogs as diagnosticians in regards to diabetes, seizure disorders, sepsis, and cancer, with generally successful results. Their keen noses can detect tiny shifts in human scents, and dogs with the right instincts can be trained to alert to very specific shifts. Beginning this spring, a handful of dogs in Finland have been in training to detect the odors of COVID-19, using saliva and sweat samples from infected or recovered individuals.
Now, it’s time to put their training to the test.
Four COVID-19 detection dogs out of the training cohort of 16 are being deployed in Helsinki Airport beginning September 23, 2020. Six more are still in training, and six have been shown to be unable to work in a crowded environment. Travelers through the airport are being asked to voluntarily donate a swab of their sweat, taken from the back of their neck. The dogs will not come in contact with the passenger but will be given the sample. Those who volunteer to give a swab will also be asked to take a more standard COVID-19 test, so that researchers can track the dogs’ accuracy on a large scale. In more controlled trials, their accuracy has been above 90 percent.
According to Anna Hielm-Björkman, a researcher from the University of Helsinki who is gathering the data, there is evidence not only that the dogs could be more accurate than the currently common tests, but that they also can find people who have come in contact with the virus but would not yet test positive under any test. This quality may perhaps be the most valuable in preventing community spread, especially in travelers.
Beyond their accuracy, the program is also testing the working limits of the dogs, and the risks to them. Dogs have tested positive for COVID-19 all over the world, but so far there has been no evidence of a dog passing COVID-19 back to a human, nor of dogs dying from the disease.
With only four COVID-19 detection dogs working in shifts, the program is not yet viable as a prevention measure, but it shows much promise.