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Corona-sniffing dogs start work at Helsinki Airport

Four dogs of various breeds began checking volunteers for coronavirus at the airport this week.

Kössi-koira haistelutehtävissä.
Kössi, a greyhound mix, previously worked as a cancer-detecting dog. He learned to identify the coronavirus in seven minutes. Image: Susanna Paavilainen

Passengers are now being offered unique Covid-19 checks at Helsinki Airport on a voluntary basis.

Four specially trained dogs, who can detect the virus faster than laboratory tests, have gone on duty at Finland’s biggest airport this week as part of a pilot project.

The city of Vantaa, which is responsible for health safety at the airport, decided to put the canines to work after promising research into their abilities.

Two of the four dogs are on duty at a time while the other two rest.

The airport is a challenging place to work, says senior researcher Anna Hielm-Björkman, who has led the corona dog research and training at the University of Helsinki’s Veterinary Faculty.

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Anna Hielm-Björkman, syöpäkoirakoulutus
Senior researcher Anna Hielm-Björkman with Kössi Image: Yle / Outi Kuitunen

“About a half a dozen dogs dropped out of the study because they weren’t suited to working in this kind of place, where there’s so much noise,” she told Yle.

"Easy, painless and completely pleasant"

At this stage, taking part in the canine testing is voluntary for travellers and airport staff.

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Koronakoira Helsinki-Vantaan lentoasemalla.
Valo Image: Matti Myller / Yle

Hielm-Björkman encourages travellers to give it a try, describing the process as "easy, painless and completely pleasant".

Travellers who want to be tested step into small, screened-off areas, where they take skin wipe samples of themselves as directed and drop them into a receptacle. The dog and its trainer wait behind a screen, where the animal sniffs each sample. The arrangement is intended to protect people who may be allergic to dogs from coming into direct contact with them, while protecting the handlers from possible exposure to the virus.

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Koronakoira.
ET Image: Matti Myller / Yle

“The whole procedure is over in minutes,” Hielm-Björkman says.

No personal data is collected at the testing point. Anyone who receives a positive result is directed to a Helsinki-Uusimaa Hospital District (HUS) health information point for guidance on further steps.

Coronavirus odour easy to detect

The coronavirus has turned out to be an easy odour for dogs to detect, so training them has been relatively quick and the results promising.

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Koronakoira Miina
Miina Image: Sara Salmi / Yle

They can detect significantly smaller amounts of the virus than the widely used PCR tests, and can do so more rapidly than laboratory tests.

“Dogs have millions of years of development work in their noses, so our lab tests can’t come anywhere near what they can smell,” says Hielm-Björkman.

Global interest

The pilot project at the airport is to last four months, and is being bankrolled by the state, Vantaa deputy mayor Timo Aronkytö explains.

Kössi-koronakoira
Kössi, a greyhound mix, has previously worked as a cancer-detecting dog. He learned to identify the coronavirus in seven minutes. Image: Sara Salmi / Yle

According to Aronkytö, the programme is already attracting attention from around the world.

“There have been quite a lot of inquiries about this from health safety officials at different airports, about whether this will be the way to keep borders open in the future,” he says. The dogs have also attracted international media attention from the likes of The New York Times.

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