A four-year-old beagle called Djaka is sniffing around at a machine with lots of holes – different smells coming out of each of them.
The dog sticks her nose in one hole and then starts to sniff harder. She’s found the one containing the coronavirus sample – the machine rewards her with a treat.
Djaka is one of 14 beagles in a Hanover University of Veterinary Medicine clinic for small animals being trained at a kind of conditioning machine to sniff out people infected with the coronavirus.
“It’s a game for dogs,” said Holger Volk, the director of the clinic in Germany where researchers are trying to determine whether sniffer dogs can be used to prevent super-spreaders from infecting others in public places.
At the airport of the Finnish capital Helsinki the drug sniffer dogs already have new colleagues: Dogs from the Wise Nose organisation have been trained to sniff out the novel coronavirus. Dubai has reportedly also begun testing coronavirus sniffer dogs.
Finland’s new specialists – called Valo, ET, K’ssi and Miina – can now be seen with their trainers in the airport building. With their noses, however, they do not come close to the passengers.
The passengers can voluntarily wipe their skin with a cloth and give a sample. This cloth is then given to the dog to sniff in a separate room.
“We are one of the pioneers,” said airport manager Ulla Lettijeff, “As far as we know, no other airport has attempted to use canine scent detection on such a large scale against [coronavirus].”
The fantastic sense of smell of dogs is, of course, already widely used in many areas. They already help police and customs officials find narcotics, explosives and cash, while Finland’s sniffer dogs had already been trained to detect diseases like cancer.
The first four of a total of 10 animals were deployed at the airport in late October after preliminary tests by veterinarians at Helsinki University suggested dogs could detect the virus with almost 100% certainty.
The sniffer dog technique could have major consequences for tracing the virus worldwide in various public locations.
Trained animals are reportedly able to identify the virus before symptoms present and from a far smaller sample than that provided in swab tests.
A dog needs 10 to 100 molecules to identify the virus, whereas test equipment requires 18 million molecules.
In July, the Hanover University of Veterinary Medicine research team published a study on coronavirus sniffer dogs in the specialist magazine BMC Infectious Diseases.
The team led by researcher Volk tested eight sniffer dogs from the German Armed Forces. After a one-week training, they were able to correctly identify the vast majority of the samples as negative or positive.
Volk says the very fact that coronavirus sniffer dogs are already being used in Helsinki and at Dubai airport is a promising sign.
And yet the current state of research is not yet clear enough to justify using coronavirus tracking dogs at the airport, says Volk. “We are so far the only ones who have published a scientific publication on the subject.”
Nevertheless, any passenger in the Finnish capital indicated by a dog to have the coronavirus will be sent for testing, where a saliva sample is taken and sent to the laboratory for evaluation.
It’s not the virus itself that the dog smells, Volk explains. Instead, the dog can sense how it is changing the human cell and the smell that these cells are emitting.
His researcher team, who say they were bombarded by inquiries from international health authorities and companies after the publication of their results, are now looking for more infected volunteers with and without symptoms, as well as people with other respiratory diseases.
Their saliva samples will be used, among other things, to find out whether the sniffer dogs can distinguish the Sars-CoV-2 virus from other coronaviruses. – dpa/Christina Sticht and Lennart Simonsson