So far, the dogs have sniffed more than 4,000 samples at the airport, and the feedback they have received is entirely positive. Now the study is moving on to the next stage, where the dogs’ sensitivity and accuracy in detecting infected individuals on the basis of smell are compared to results from PCR tests. The preliminary findings on canine abilities are very promising.
The coronavirus dog study carried out by the University of Helsinki’s DogRisk research group has been piloted at Helsinki Airport from September. The factors investigated in the pilot, also known as a proof-of-concept study, include the dogs’ coping at the airport, the facilities needed for dogs and their handlers, as well as the best way to organise the sample collection process. During a six-week trial period, the dogs’ workflow was successfully smoothed out. During the period, passengers participated in sniffing tests only. By the end of November, the dogs have sniffed over 4,000 samples at the airport, and the feedback they have received is entirely positive.
Actual scientific research, where the negative or positive results indicated by the dogs in samples given by air travellers are compared to results obtained in laboratory tests (of the PCR type) was initiated on 11 November after receiving the last of the required permits. Scientific results from the COVID dog study conducted at Helsinki Airport are expected early next year at the earliest, as research and the peer review of results by the scientific community take time.
However, the DogRisk group has presented preliminary results at two international scientific conferences, as well as, among others, to the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare, the Finnish Parliament, the World Organisation for Animal Health and the World Health Organization.
The research group has been pleasantly surprised by the reception given to the dogs.
“We haven’t had a single negative instance of feedback on the dogs’ activities, even though some passengers may be afraid of or allergic to dogs,” says Anna Hielm-Björkman, head of the DogRisk group.
“The only thing people have complained about have been visits to the testing site after the dogs have gone home for the day, or not being able to get close enough to the dogs to take a selfie. People say the dogs should be there around the clock,” Hielm-Björkman chuckles.
The welfare of the dogs is of utmost importance, and their work has been monitored on a daily basis during the pilot, with certain necessary changes already implemented. For instance, a larger dog was unable to perform its duties in the sniffing lane due to lack of space, which is why relevant modifications were implemented to enable its work. A break room for the dogs is still under development: not all dogs like to rest and work in the same space. Currently, there are five coronavirus sniffer dogs working at the airport.
So far, the dogs have sniffed 4,153 samples, of which 25 were indicated as positive and 4,128 as negative by the dogs (out of all samples, 0.6% have been positive). With less strict travel restrictions in place, the dogs identified roughly 1.1% of the samples as positive. In October, as Finland started requiring a coronavirus test taken before arrival in the country, the share of positive results dropped to approximately 0.3%. This seems logical, but conducting a control study using results from PCR tests is important.
Research ongoing elsewhere as well
Scientific research on coronavirus-detecting dogs is being conducted elsewhere in the world as well, by a number of universities in more than 10 countries.
A hot topic in the international research field focused on coronavirus dogs is the combination of scents which makes dogs detect a COVID-19 infection.
On the basis of prior research, dogs may be able to identify a coronavirus infection in samples taken from humans. In addition to cancer and coronavirus, dogs have been scientifically proven to detect, among others, malaria, Parkinson’s disease, migraine, diabetes and epilepsy. In most studies, the success rate of dogs in detecting different diseases has been reported in scientific publications to be between 90 and 100 per cent. A handful of studies have been conducted abroad where the handlers have not succeeded in making the dogs exceed the success rate of chance, which is why the best training methods are still being further developed. So far, it has been found that, for example, the traditional methods of training police and customs dogs are not well suited to disease detection. For example, explosives and illegal drugs are uncomplicated molecules, not combinations of thousands of different molecules such as various biological samples taken from humans.
“Dogs are unlikely to smell the tumours or the SARS-CoV-2 virus as such when they are sniffing for cancer or coronavirus. It is more likely that they detect metabolic functions in humans that are associated with the disease, or their end products,” Hielm-Björkman says.
Sources of additional funding sought
For the study to continue next year, additional funding is needed.
“Such funding would make it possible to pilot new activities at the airport and elsewhere, such as having dogs sniff a large number of people, for example, at sports and cultural events and trade shows. Moreover, further research could look into how dogs can be made to sniff a large number of samples if they are taken in the airplane during the flight, and which samples are best suited to dogs – smear samples from the forearm or neck, sweat collected from the armpit or saliva, or whether sniffing masks would be enough,” Hielm -Björkman describes.
The study conducted at Helsinki Airport has so far received €300,000 in funding as a Ministry of Social Affairs and Health pilot. The funding has been used to plan and set up a sniffing station used in the testing, as well as for the testing and research material needed for the station and for the salaries of the sample collectors, dog trainers and handlers.
Extremely acute canine sense of smell potentially an excellent tool for controlling the coronavirus pandemic
Kössi, a former cancer sniffer and one of the COVID dogs now working at the airport, and his colleagues are not alone: dogs are now being used at other airports across the world as well. Similar airport operations had already been initiated in the United Arab Emirates (Dubai, Abu Dhabi and two other airports in the country) before the project in Finland got started. After Helsinki Airport, canine airport and border control operations have been launched in at least three other countries, where the dogs work every day just like in Finland.
“In the future, dogs trained in scent detection could also be utilised in identifying people infected by coronavirus, for example, in care homes, in screening hospital staff and by customs at airports,” Hielm-Björkman says.
How to support research
When returning from a trip via Helsinki Airport, take a COVID dog test and, after that, a PCR test, and give your consent to the research group to use your results.
You can also support the dogs by making a donation to research. Both the Finnish Kennel Club and the University of Helsinki are raising funds, further instructions are available here:
- Enquiries concerning the study: Please write to anna.hielm-björkman@helsinki.fi or send an SMS to +358 44 527 0462
- Enquiries concerning the airport pilot and related activities: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Enquiries concerning dog training: email@example.com
- DogRisk research group's webpages
- The Finnish COVID dogs’ nose knows! (news 19 May 2020)
The sharp noses of COVID dogs are utilized at the Helsinki-Vantaa Airport (news 24 September 2020)