Finland brings in dogs to sniff out Covid-19

Helsinki Airport becomes the first in Europe to trial a scheme first adopted in Dubai to assess health of travellers

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Finland has become the second country after the United Arab Emirates to use coronavirus-sniffing dogs at its main international airport in a four-month trial of an alternative testing method that could become a quick and inexpensive way to identify infected travellers.

Four dogs of different breeds trained by Finland’s Smell Detection Association started working Wednesday at Helsinki Airport as part of the government-financed trial.

“It’s a very promising method. Dogs are very good at sniffing,” said Anna Hielm-Bjorkman, a University of Helsinki professor of equine and small animal medicine.

While researchers in several countries, including Australia, France, Germany and the United States, are also studying dogs as coronavirus detectors, the Finnish trial is among the largest so far.

Prof Hielm-Bjorkman said that Finland is the first country in Europe to assign dogs to sniff out the coronavirus after a similar programme started at Dubai International Airport over the summer.

Passengers who agree to take a free test under the voluntary program in Helsinki do not have direct physical contact with a dog.

They are asked to swipe their skin with a wipe which is then put into a jar and given to a dog waiting in a separate booth. The participating animals - ET, Kossi, Miina and Valo - previously underwent training to detect cancer, diabetes or other diseases.

It takes the dog a mere 10 seconds to sniff the virus samples before it gives the test result by scratching a paw, laying down, barking or otherwise making its conclusion known. The process should be completed within one minute, according to Hielm-Bjorkman.

If the result is positive, the passenger is urged to take a standard polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, coronavirus test, to check the dog’s accuracy.

Timo Aronkyto, the deputy mayor of Vantaa, the capital region city where the airport is located, said the programme is costing 300,000 euros - an amount he called “remarkably lower” than for other methods of mass testing arriving passengers.

The four sniffer dogs are set to work at the airport in shifts, with two on duty at a time while the other two get a break.