The latest airport to enlist dogs in detecting COVID-19 in arriving passengers is Islamabad International in Pakistan. With a close to 100% accuracy in detecting infections, the keen noses will screen samples from travelers in a bid to stop imported cases of coronavirus. They are far from alone, as dogs are being trained to sniff out asymptomatic cases all over the world.
Sniffer dogs are a common sight around airports. Usually, the sensitive-nosed canines are deployed to detect the smuggling of narcotics or the presence of explosives. However, as the world and travel face a different calamity, man’s best friend is being called upon to discover COVID-19 infections.
The fantastic four on four legs
Following similar projects in Helsinki and Dubai, authorities at Islamabad International Airport have decided to bring in sniffer dogs to fight against the spread of coronavirus. A pack of four specially trained dogs is being provided by the Pakistan Army. They will screen incoming passengers to the capital and are to function as a secondary tool, complementing the use of thermal scanners and rapid antigen tests.
However, it is not a question of dogs getting up close and personal to people as they would with a bag. A sample of sweat (a method that has been proven to be non-infectious) is collected from the traveler. These are then presented to the dogs in a separate and isolated room.
Detecting infections earlier than PCR tests
The four dogs at Islamabad Airport are not unique. As research has shown that dogs can sniff out COVID-19 with about 95% accuracy even before symptoms begin to appear, canines around the world are undergoing special training. Studies say they can detect infection within seconds, even in the earliest stages when a PCR test would give a negative result.
The airport reportedly decided to enlist the four-legged super noses after several passengers had been caught carrying fake negative certificates and later testing positive for COVID-19. The country’s National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC) approved the measure in a meeting earlier this week.
A growing group of canine corona detectors
COVID-19 sniffer dogs are already in action at Helsinki’s Vantaa Airport in Finland and Dubai Airport in the UAE. Another project has been launched at Beirut-Rafic Hariri International Airport. The man responsible for the Beirut program, oncologist and professor Riad Sarkis, has spent years researching how dogs can detect cancer and thus facilitate early treatment.
“When COVID appeared, I thought, why not try. And it worked,” Mr Sarkis, who was also part of the research on COVID-19 detection done at France’s Maison-Alfort veterinary school, told Al Arabiya.
Two dogs, an Alsatian and a Malinois, have been trained by a handler at a special Beirut facility. It is unclear what breed the dogs working at Islamabad Airport are, but both Dubai and Helsinki have also brought in types of shepherd dogs. Although, in theory, research says, any dog could be trained for the job.
In Thailand, six Labrador Retrievers have been in COVID-training for six months. They can reportedly go through 60 samples within as many seconds. And not only airports are using dogs to detect coronavirus. As sports events opened to the public in the US, sniffer dogs have walked the queues of people waiting to get into the arenas.