Dogs that have been trained to detect the coronavirus have started working at Helsinki Airport this week in a pilot project, with the hope that their sensitive noses can speed up the process of identifying potential carriers of the virus.
The director of Finland's Helsinki-Vantaa airport, which is run by Finavia, said it was one of the first airports to pilot the project that has seen a handful of dogs trained to sniff out Covid-19 stationed at the airport, alongside standard testing procedures.
"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," Ulla Lettijeff said, according to a statement from Finavia.
There have been several studies that have found that dogs are able to smell the virus with almost 100% accuracy, and can even detect the virus before any symptoms are present. Preliminary tests conducted by a research group at the Veterinary Faculty of the University of Helsinki in May that found that trained scent detection dogs might "even perform better than the current Covid-19 tests that are based on molecular techniques."
Then in July, the University of Veterinary Medicine Hannover, the Hannover Medical School and the German Armed Forces piloted a study in which they found that, if properly trained, dogs were able to discriminate between human saliva samples infected with SARS-CoV-2 and non-infected samples with a 94% success rate overall.
The dogs being used in Helsinki's airport pilot program do not come into direct contact with anyone being tested at the airport, and tests are voluntary. Anyone taking a test will swipe their skin with a test wipe and drop it into a cup, which is then given to the dog, Finavia noted, adding that "this also protects the dog's handler from infections."
All the tests are processed anonymously and if the test result is positive, passengers or airport personnel are then advised to take a regular coronavirus test to ensure the result is correct.
The Covid-19 dogs being deployed in the Helsinki Airport pilot project have been trained by an organization called Wise Nose that specializes in scent detection, in conjunction with Anna Hielm-Bjorkman, a professor at the University of Helsinki's veterinary faculty.
She told CNBC that the pilot was designed to see how dogs perform and cope with scent detection in a real, working environment rather than within a controlled, laboratory setting, and that the dogs' detecting performances would also be studied to see how they matched up to current PCR tests that are widely used. But if the pilot proves to be successful, it could be rolled out elsewhere.
"For testing the coronavirus, they're (the dogs) are really the best thing we can have," she told CNBC Thursday. "They're very cheap to train and to have, it takes exactly a minute to do the test, it's very un-invasive," she said, noting that dogs' superior skills are already used to detecting explosives, drugs and missing people among other working situations, and "this was just a new one."