COVID-Sniffing Dogs Could Help Make Air Travel Safer

Early studies indicate 95% success rate for dogs trained to detect coronavirus

By Eric Heyl

Published September 14, 2020

Read Time: 3 mins


When it comes to determining whether an air traveler might have the coronavirus, a new detection tool could soon join the battle: dogs.

Sniffer dogs are already a frequent sight in airports, usually used to detect weapons or drugs. But canines could soon be used to identify COVID-19 as well, as the aviation industry works to make air travel as safe as possible during the pandemic.

A pilot training program using scent-detection dogs to discriminate between samples from COVID-positive and COVID-negative patients is the focus of a new research initiative at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine.

Dogs have up to 300 million smell receptors, compared to 6 million in humans. The study exploring the sensitivity and specificity of scent could allow canines to detect COVID-19, in airports, hospitals and business environments.

“Scent-detection dogs can accurately detect low concentrations of volatile organic compounds, otherwise known as VOCs, associated with various diseases such as ovarian cancer, bacterial infections, and nasal tumors. These VOCs are present in human blood, saliva, urine or breath,” said Cynthia Otto, professor of working dog sciences and sports medicine, and director of Penn Vet’s Working Dog Center.

Similar studies and pilot programs are taking place in other countries such as Germany, which has reported an accuracy rate of 94 percent, and France, where dogs detected the virus in two subjects who had not yet tested positive via traditional laboratory assessments.

“The potential impact of these dogs and their capacity to detect COVID-19 could be substantial,” Otto said. “This study will harness the dog’s extraordinary ability to support the nation’s COVID-19 surveillance systems, with the goal of reducing community spread.”

As air traffic gradually returns to normal amid the outbreak, airports have deployed new ways to limit risk, including screening passengers for symptoms, requiring masks, enforcing social distancing and installing vending machines stocked with personal protective equipment.

Early indications from Penn Vet trials indicate the sniffer dogs potentially could be a major benefit to airports as they continue to adapt to the pandemic. The school thus far has trained nine dogs to detect a scent present in patients diagnosed with COVID-19; the dogs have an accuracy rate of more than 95 percent in both identifying positive samples and ignoring negative ones.

K-9s at Dubai International Airport have shown a coronavirus detection accuracy rate of 92 percent. (Photo courtesy of Emirates News Agency)

That success rate is similar to scent-sniffing K-9s that were deployed this summer at Dubai International Airport in the United Arab Emirates, which says it is the first country in the world to use this method.

Workers at the airport take swabs from the armpits of travelers who are possibly infected with COVID-19. Those samples are then placed in containers that the dogs sniff in a separate area. According to the Emirates News Agency, those dogs had a coronavirus detection accuracy rate of 92 percent.

“Trained detection dogs are known for their extraordinary capabilities and skills that outdo other dogs, especially their strong sense of smell. For this reason, they can be used in police patrols and securing malls, events, airports and other vital facilities,” the UAE Ministry of the Interior stated.

How soon dogs could be doing the same at American airports is unclear. The Penn study still needs to test whether the canines can differentiate between those who test positive for the virus and those who test negative simply by sniffing clothing.  The university plans on recruiting 400 people for the trial: 200 who tested positive and 200 who tested negative.

But with canines having been trained to detect afflictions such as cancer, malaria and Parkinson’s disease, don’t be surprised if they soon are on the front lines of the coronavirus battle.

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