Americans could soon see coronavirus-sniffing dogs at airports and other venues as the U.S. eases pandemic restrictions and enters a “new normal.”
Starting at the end of this month, Miami International Airport will employ COVID-19 detection canines to screen employee checkpoints in a six-month pilot study.
Two to four dogs, trained at Florida International University’s International Forensic Research Institute, will screen employees three days a week as part of the study, which could expand to include departing passengers, said Kenneth Furton, the university’s provost and chief operating officer.
Demand for COVID-19 detection dogs to screen travelers could grow as travel resumes, said Mr. Furton, founder of the International Forensic Research Institute (IFRI).
“I think demand for some of the events probably will tail off, but I think at screening points, there could be an increase because even though in the United States, the number of people getting vaccinated has increased to the point that we’re getting back to sort of the next normal,” he said. “When you’re dealing with things like cruise ships or airlines or anywhere where we’re going to have a significant international presence, then they can be used effectively [in] those kinds of areas. I think there may be an increase in demand.”
Four dogs trained to detect COVID-19 at the university reportedly became the first in the country last month to become certified to sniff out the coronavirus. A Belgian Malinois, a Dutch Shepherd and two small rescue dogs make up the certified coronavirus detection team.
A panel of outside observers certified the dogs based on protocols set by the Scientific Working Group on Dog and Orthogonal Detector Guidelines, an IFRI program that aims to improve detector dog teams’ performance.
The dogs were first deployed at Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ emergency operations center in Tallahassee and have been working at the FIU campus in Miami since January to sniff out COVID-19 on surfaces as one of the university’s safety measures.
The university used the detection dogs at its student center and classrooms to search areas where potentially infected students and staff had been and to identify areas of contamination that needed a deeper cleaning, Mr. Furton said.
In upcoming pilot studies, the dogs will be screening people and pinpointing specific individuals who might be infected with COVID-19.
There are also talks about the dogs participating in pilot studies at a government center and a seaport in Miami-Dade County, according to Mr. Furton.
In Myakka City, a couple of hundred miles northwest of Miami, BioScent trains and deploys dogs to sniff out cancer and other life-threatening illnesses. The company is training more than 60 dogs to detect COVID-19.
Most of the BioScent dogs are beagles and nine are mixes of beagle and basset hound, said Heather Junqueira, company founder and CEO.
Ms. Junqueira said she decided to train beagles because they have a good work ethic and the third-highest number of smell receptors, after bloodhounds and basset hounds.
The dog trainer has a couple of requests for the COVID-19-detection dogs including for screening at a concert in Austin, Texas, in October and the construction site of a complex in Atlanta for the Overtime Elite basketball league.
“Where the dogs offer a huge advantage is you could screen people in a second to two seconds. So you know if you need to pull those individuals to do a diagnostic test then,” Ms. Junqueira said. “The purpose of the dogs is not to replace a PCR test. The purpose of the dogs is to screen people out to be like, ‘Hey, this person needs to be tested.’”
“I think with COVID-19 we’ve seen how small our world is and how quickly things can spread. And I think we have to be prepared, you know, if a different virus were to come along to prevent future pandemics. We’ve already got dogs that are up and ready to go and ready to be scented,” she said. “Say, all of a sudden, there’s an outbreak of some new virus and we suspect that it’s moving this way, we can get samples and train dogs very quickly to deploy that can prevent individuals from entering the U.S. with a new virus.”
“The dogs really present a line of defense that we could utilize in the future for multiple different viruses, not just COVID,” she said.
Dogs have up to 300 million smell receptors, whereas humans have about 6 million. Scientists around the world are training coronavirus-sniffing dogs that could be deployed to screen people at high traffic areas such as at schools and airports, and be paired with diagnostic testing programs.
Some countries abroad already have turned to detection dogs to screen many travelers at once, including airports in the United Arab Emirates and the Helsinki-Vantaa Airport in Finland.
In the U.S., coronavirus-detection dogs have been used at sporting events including for Miami Heat basketball games and NASCAR races.
According to Mr. Furton, the FIU dogs have detected COVID-19 with a more than 95% accuracy. The BioScent dogs have been able to accurately detect the coronavirus 98% of the time, Ms. Junqueira said.
The University of Pennsylvania is conducting its own COVID-19 canine scent detection study. In late April, the university’s veterinary medicine school began a pilot program to train eight dogs to detect COVID-19. The researchers, with the help of the Army, expose the dogs to COVID-19 positive saliva and urine samples in a lab setting, a process called odor imprinting, as part of the training process.
Initial screening of people by these dogs could start as early as July.