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Coach Susanna Paavilainen is seen with Kossi (L) and Miina, sniffer dogs trained to detect the coronavirus from samples from arriving passengers, at Helsinki Airport in Vantaa, Finland on September 22 2020.
Travelers arriving at Helsinki Airport are offered a voluntary coronavirus test that takes 10 seconds, without an uncomfortable nasal swab. And the test is done by a dog. A couple of coronavirus-sniffing canines began work at the Finnish airport on Wednesday as part of a pilot program that aims to detect infections using sweat collected on the wipes of arriving passengers. In recent months, international airports have introduced various methods to detect the virus in travelers, including saliva tests, temperature checks and nasal swabs. But Finnish researchers say using dogs could be cheaper, faster and more effective. After passengers arriving from overseas have collected their luggage, they are advised to wipe their necks to collect sweat samples and leave the wipes in a box. Behind a wall, a dog trainer places the box next to cans of different scents, and a dog goes to work. Dogs can detect a patient infected with coronavirus in 10 seconds, and the entire process takes a minute to complete, researchers say. If the dog reports a positive result, the passenger is directed to the airport health center for a free viral test.
Why dogs?Dogs have a particularly keen sense of smell and have long been used at airports to sniff bombs, drugs, and other contraband in luggage. They were also able to detect diseases such as cancer and malaria. So, in the midst of a pandemic, training dogs to detect COVID-19 has become an obvious choice, said Anna Hielm-Bjorkman, a researcher at the University of Helsinki who is overseeing the trial. And they seem to do the job, she said. In the first step of the test, dogs could detect the virus in an asymptomatic person or before symptoms appear. They detected it at an earlier stage than a PCR test, the most widely used diagnostic tool for the novel coronavirus. In July, researchers at the University of Veterinary Medicine Hanover in Germany also found that with a week of training, dogs were able to distinguish saliva samples from people infected with the coronavirus from samples uninfected with a 94% success rate. Dogs do not appear to be easily infected with the coronavirus, although they do appear to have been in a few cases. Other animals like cats seem to be much more sensitive. There is no evidence that dogs develop symptoms or that they can transmit the virus to humans or other animals.
How do they do?Sniffer dogs, who are trained to recognize the scent of the virus, detect it by smelling urine or sweat samples, according to the University of Helsinki Veterinary School. Hielm-Bjorkman said she and her team trained the dogs by making a specific sound whenever the dogs indicate a positive sample – “and yes, a treat, too,” she said. When dogs smell a negative sample, nothing happens and they move on to the next. Wise Nose, a Finnish organization specializing in odor detection, has partnered with the faculty to train 16 dogs, four of which are starting work at the airport this week. Six are still in training and the rest were unable to work in a noisy environment. “All dogs can be trained to smell the coronavirus, but they are individuals, and not all can work at an airport,” said Virpi Perala, a representative of Evidensia, a network of hospitals and veterinary clinics that funded the first stage of the trial. .
Does this mean the coronavirus has a smell?This is what researchers believe. But what exactly dogs detect when they detect the virus is the million dollar question, Hielm-Bjorkman said. “We know how dogs detect it – by smell – but we don’t yet have a clue what they’re detecting,” she says. “If we find out about this, we can train thousands of dogs around the world.” Scientists in the United States are studying whether an infected person secretes a chemical that dogs can smell. And a French study published in June found “very high evidence” that the smell of an infected person’s sweat was different in ways that dogs might experience.
Could it become a thing?The pilot program in Finland is the first to be used at an airport. Susanna Paavilainen, managing director of Wise Nose, said she plans to have 10 dogs to work at the airport by the end of November, and Hielm-Bjorkman from the University of Helsinki said she would collect data until the end of the year. Other such programs could also be underway. In recent months, trials in Britain, France, Germany and the United States have assessed how dogs can detect the coronavirus. In Finland, researchers say if the pilot programs prove to be effective, dogs could be used in nursing homes to screen residents or in hospitals to avoid unnecessary quarantines for healthcare professionals. But scaling up these programs could be tricky: dogs need to be trained and then assisted by their trainers once they can work outside the labs. At Helsinki airport, two dogs worked simultaneously on Wednesday while two others rested. Hielm-Bjorkman acknowledged that the resources were modest – at least for now. The program will attempt to assess how long dogs can work in a day and whether the same animals can be used to detect substances such as drugs. Perala, of the Evidensia network, said Finland would need 700 to 1,000 coronavirus sniffer dogs to cover schools, shopping malls and nursing homes, but more trained animals – and trainers – would be needed for a even wider coverage. “We could keep our country open if we had enough dogs,” she says.
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© 2019 New York Times News Service