Helsinki Airport to deploy Covid-19 sniffer dogs

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Sniffer dogs are well known for their ability to track down explosives and illicit substances, and now Helsinki Airport will be deploying them to identify passengers infected with Covid-19.

“The pilot will be kicked off on Tuesday (Sept 22) and 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,” explained airport director Ulla Lettijeff from Finavia.

It would seem detecting Covid-19 is relatively easy for dogs; according to preliminary tests conducted by a research group at the Veterinary Faculty of the University of Helsinki, dogs are able to smell the virus with almost 100% certainty. They can also identify the virus days before the symptoms have even started. Something that laboratory tests fail to do.

Dogs were also able to identify the infection from a much smaller sample than the PCR tests used by healthcare professionals. Impressively, a dog needs only 10-100 molecules to identify the virus, whereas test equipment requires 18,000,000.

The Helsinki Airport Covid dogs are trained by Wise Nose, a Finnish smell detection association, with the research group’s startup, Nose Academy, running the operation at the airport. In the future, existing trained customs dogs might replace the current operatives. Official Covid-19 testing with dogs, replacing PCR tests, can only be conducted once a corresponding legislative amendment has been passed.

Taking a Covid-19 dog test will not include direct contact with the dog. Instead, the dog will perform its work in a separate booth. Those taking the test will swipe their skin with a test wipe and drop it into a cup, which is then given to the dog. This also protects the dog’s handler from infections. All the tests are processed anonymously. If the test result is positive, the passenger will be directed to a health information point maintained by the city of Vantaa, which is located at the airport.

It is planned that four dogs will work at the airport during a shift. The duration of each shift depends on the dogs. A total of 10 are currently being trained for the job.

“Dogs need to rest from time to time. While two dogs are working, the other two are on a break. The service is mainly intended for passengers arriving from outside the country,” explained Susanna Paavilainen, CEO of Suomen hajuerottelu – Wise Nose Ry.

Almost all of the dogs have done scent detection work before, with the training time required to identify Covid-19 depending on the dog’s background. According to the airport, one of the dogs that will soon start work is an eight-year-old greyhound mix called Kössi, who learned to identify the scent in just seven minutes.

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