Helsinki Introduces COVID-19 Sniffing Dogs

We first reported on the use of dogs to detect COVID-19 in mid-August, when Dubai International Airport made its efforts public. Now that same technique is coming to Helsinki-Vantaa International Airport and begins today. This initiative is part of airport operator Finavia’s efforts to test new and efficient ways to reduce the spread of the virus.
Helsinki Airport
Helsinki Airport is located in the city of Vantaa, situated about 20km north of Helsinki’s city center. Photo: Tilia Monto via Wikimedia Commons 

“Almost 100% certainty”

Beginning today, dogs will be used for detecting COVID-19 amongst travelers at the Helsinki-Vantaa Airport. This pilot project follows preliminary testing conducted by a research group at the Veterinary Faculty of the University of Helsinki.

During these preliminary tests, dogs were able to smell the virus with almost 100% certainty. They were also able to identify the virus days before the symptoms had even started, something that even laboratory tests fail to do, Finavia notes.

The airport operator continues by saying that the dogs are also able to identify the virus from a much smaller sample than PCR tests. “The difference is massive, as a dog only needs 10-100 molecules to identify the virus, whereas test equipment requires 18,000,000.”

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No direct contact with travelers

A COVID-19 dog test at Helsinki Airport will not include direct contact with the dog, Finavia notes. Instead, detection dogs will perform work in separate booths.

“Those taking the test will swipe their skin with a test wipe and drop it into a cup, which is then given to the dog. This also protects the dog’s handler from infections. All the tests are processed anonymously,” the airport operator states. We don’t yet have visuals of Helsinki’s program, but we imagine it will look similar to what Dubai International Airport has for a setup:

“The pilot that will be kicked off on Tuesday is unique and a world first. No other airport has attempted to use canine scent detection on such a large scale against COVID-19. We are pleased with the city of Vantaa’s initiative. This might be an additional step forward on the way to beating COVID-19,” -Ulla Lettijeff, Airport Director, Finavia.

Simple Flying contacted Finavia inquiring about the statement above, noting that Dubai’s program had started a month ago. At the time of publication, no response has been received.

Cooperating with homegrown talent

While Dubai’s program had experts from the UK and France training their dogs, the canines working at Helsinki-Vantaa are trained locally at Wise Nose – Finland Smell Detection Association.

This start-up organization trains dogs to distinguish between different smells. On its website, the company notes that dogs can be trained to recognize the scent of the changes associated with certain medical events. “For example, cancer cells leave tiny amounts of volatile substances that dogs learn to recognize.”

Helsinki-Vantaa airport in Vantaa, Finland
This is only a pilot program, which still requires the passing of a legislative amendment. Photo: Getty Images

Still in pilot phase

For now, Wise Nose’s ‘Nose Academy’ is running the pilot project. However, if proven to be a success, Finavia says that customs dogs might be able to replace the current operatives. This is because official COVID-19 testing with trained dogs can only begin once a corresponding legislative amendment has been passed.

Finnair A350
Travelers, including many flying with Finnair, may benefit from faster and more accurate testing at the airport. Photo: Airbus

“We are working with Finnish Customs to prepare for a potential scenario where it takes charge of the operation,” says Susanna Paavilainen, CEO of Suomen hajuerottelu – WiseNose Ry, and research coordinator of University of Helsinki’s DogRisk research group.

What do you think of this ‘trend’? Is it something we’ll see become commonplace at airports around the world? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.