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Funding secured for coronavirus airport dogs

An initial batch of 16 dogs will be trained in detecting coronavirus at Helsinki Airport test centres.

Hajuerotteluyhdistys Wise Nosen koirat harjoittelivat tositoimia varten elokuussa Vantaalla.
A Labrador Retriever undergoing training to detect the coronavirus scent. Image: Mårten Lampén / Yle
Yle News

A project training sniffer dogs to detect coronavirus infections at Helsinki Airport will go ahead after securing private funding.

Evidensia Eläinlääkäripalvelut, a nationwide network of veterinary clinics and hospitals, has announced plans to pay for the training of 16 dogs.

"As the coronavirus testing queues are only getting longer and the situation is getting worse, we saw it as our obligation to get involved," the network’s Communications Director, Virpi Perälä, told Yle.

This week All Points North looks at Finland's chances of becoming a safe haven from the Covid-19 pandemic. You can listen to the full podcast via the embedded player here or via Yle Areena, Spotify, Apple Podcasts or your usual podcast player using the RSS feed. Be sure to subscribe to the show wherever you get your podcasts and sign up for the APN newsletter.

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An organisation called Wise Nose had been arranging the training on a voluntary basis for the past two weeks, but said funding applications sent to a number of different foundations and ministries in order to continue the project had proved unsuccessful.

Another group, called Koronakoiraryhmä ("Coronavirus Dog Group") had also applied for numerous research grants, but did not meet the necessary criteria, according to Anna Hjelm-Björkman, who leads the research at the University of Helsinki.

Evidensia has now committed to paying salaries to trainers as well as providing food and medical services for the dogs.

The co-operation will ensure that a group of sniffer dogs trained to detect the coronavirus scent will be deployed at the airport, Wise Nose’s Executive Director Susanna Paavilainen told Yle.

"This is a really big and significant step that allows us to work, practice and train. Words are not enough to express how wonderful and happy I am about this," Paavilainen said.

Coronavirus dogs previously trained as cancer detectors

The initial training of dogs in the detection of the virus was progressing promisingly, Paavilainen said, until the location for the training - a former school in Varisto - had to close due to indoor air problems.

Within the first two weeks of training, seven of the 16 dogs had already learned to recognise the coronavirus scent from a skin wipe sample, Paavilainen added.

"For example, yesterday we had one new dog that sniffed 120 samples, in which there were 12 positive samples, and it found them all," she said, adding that dogs that have previously performed scent-detection tasks were quickest to recognise positive coronavirus samples.

The dogs will be working at the airport within a couple of weeks at the earliest, Paavilainen said, but they will also need to become accustomed to working in a noisy environment before they can begin their duties.

"The dogs still need to get used to the airport environment, so that they can concentrate and work in that noise," Paavilainen said, adding that the plan is for the dogs to sniff skin swabs from passengers at stations currently under construction.

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