Meet the sniffer dogs detecting Covid-19 variants

Sky might be the solution to Lebanon's fight against the Delta variant

With her glossy brown coat and sparkling white teeth, sniffer dog Sky may seem the most unlikely of weapons in Lebanon's fight against the coronavirus.

Currently, the country is in the midst of an apparent lull in coronavirus cases.

As summer approaches, life is largely back to normal, as cases and hospitalisations caused by the virus continue to drop.

Vaccinations continue at a steady, if underwhelming, rate while fears that the healthcare system might collapse under the weight of Covid-19 cases have largely dissipated.

But variants of the disease are causing concern – particularly the Delta, previously known as the Indian variant.

It has caused England in the UK to extend its lockdown by four weeks, and other countries may be forced to do the same.

Doctors in Beirut fear that the country could be vulnerable to another peak next year, should Delta begin to proliferate.

Yet there is a secret weapon against new variants of the virus – canines like Sky.

The dogs' sense of smell is so finely tuned, they can pick up the difference between a standard strain of Covid and new variants such as Delta, says Riad Sarkis, the French-Lebanese doctor behind the programme.

“We know that there are variants because the dogs give us a new reaction, and we knew from this reaction there is something different,” he said, a year after retraining his sniffer dogs to seek out the virus.

“Our dogs are able to detect specifically all kinds of Covid-19."

The dogs were initially trained for other purposes, detecting everything from explosives to narcotics.

More than 12 years ago, Dr Sarkis started researching their ability to sniff out cancer. The results were excellent.

When the pandemic hit, he immediately switched his research efforts, wondering whether the dogs could detect Covid-19.

It turned out they could, and with more accuracy than a PCR test, Dr Sarkis claims.

Now he has retrained them once again – to sniff out the Covid variants which threaten to prolong the pandemic.

The dogs can be trained in just two months, and after that, can sniff out Covid variants in a matter of seconds, trainers say – far quicker than the hours-long wait for results from a swab test.

They could be deployed to check arriving airport passengers, establishing their coronavirus status within minutes, trainers say.

“I’m happy that we were able to succeed, just as we did in detecting explosives and uncovering terrorism,” said Carlo Selman, who helps to train the dogs.

“Today we are uncovering the terror of this pandemic.”