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Sniffer dogs detecting Covid-19 cases at airports


If one of the dogs sits after sniffing a mask at the checkpoint, the next step is for the mask owner to be tested. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

A sniffer dog, the kind used in detecting drugs, could soon be singling out people with Covid-19.

It is the first time dogs are being used to screen an infectious disease in a pilot project currently underway at the Miami International Airport, USA, where two shepherding dogs have successfully been detecting Covid from smelling face masks.

The dogs, Cobra, a Belgian Malinois, and One Betta, a Dutch Shepherd, have more than 98 per cent success rate, according to WebMD, a medical journal that includes the Global Forensic and Justice Centre at Florida International University as part of the pilot project that could see sniffer dogs deployed to other airports, railway stations, schools, universities, stadia and during emergency operations.    

In the research, the dogs had been trained to detect an olfactory (nerves that pass from nose to brain) signal of the coronavirus, which causes Covid-19.

They were then taken to sniff face masks from American Airlines employees at the security checkpoint, where they sat down- to indicate the presence of Covid in the mask of an infected person.

“Their detection rate is high, at more than 98 per cent and the programme has been such a success that it is being extended for another month at the airport,” reads a section of scientific findings, adding that the sniffer dogs would be ideal for “other places with lots of people coming and going at once, including other airports or even schools.”

Already, the dogs are being used at the Florida International University, where a study dubbed “medical detector dogs” was carried out to find out whether animals can detect the odour of someone with seizure.

It was this research that led scientists to experiment with use of animals to detect other disorders. The dogs were thus God sent when Covid-19 broke out.

Kenneth Furton, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry, provost and executive Vice President at Florida, noted that scientists embarked on training the two dogs to detect a variety of odours before narrowing down to a certain one. In this case, the dogs were specifically trained to detect the coronavirus.


A dog that has been trained by Dubai Police K-9 unit to sniff out COVID-19. [Reuters]

To train Cobra and One Betta on Covid-19 odours, scientists first got face mask samples from victims hospitalised with Covid-19 and those who did not have the disease.

Scientists explained that in battling Covid-19, people produce certain chemicals that they exhale when breathing, and which the dogs were trained to detect the exhaled components trapped in the masks.

“There are some reports of dogs also alerting before tests can show a positive result, suggesting the dogs’ odour detection can be more precise,” said Prof Furton adding that the sniffer dogs have since been trained to detect not just seizures, Covid-19 but also identify diabetes and some cancers like ovarian.

The study initially involved four dogs, Cobra, One Betta, Hubble from whom all traces of an active virus was destroyed by ultraviolet light to avoid infecting them.

Cobra and One Betta showed the most accuracy as Cobra was ranked first with 99.45 per cent accuracy,” reads the report which added that “One Betta was “not one better,” coming in second at 98.1 percent, which is still quite high.”

However, it was noted that both dogs are good at their airport screening duties- If one of them sits after sniffing a mask at the checkpoint, the next step is for the mask owner to be tested.

“There are some reports of dogs also alerting before tests can show a positive result, suggesting the dogs’ odour detection can be more precise,” said Furton. Scientists noted the need to extend the study, to know how tight the window of dog-based detection is.

“For now, the detector dogs are doing so well that the program has been extended for 30 more days,” observed Chin.

“Although the pilot screening at Miami International is the first airport test, the dogs have also done this work in other venues, including at a state emergency operations centre in Florida and in some university classrooms,” added Furton.

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