Before they begin work at Miami International Airport, employees must be screened for COVID-19. Two 7-year-old dogs, Cobra and One Betta, sniff the employees’ face coverings and signal if they detect the odor of the virus. The dogs are rewarded for their work with playtime with their favorite toy, a rubber ball.
This pilot program is the first of its kind in the United States. A number of studies have shown that dogs, with their extraordinary sense of smell, can be trained to detect the virus with 96 to 99 percent accuracy. Although researchers do not yet know exactly what chemicals dogs are identifying when they detect COVID-19, it is known that the dogs can smell the virus in a person’s sweat and breath due to metabolic changes that the disease causes.
If the Miami program works well, the plan is to implement it with travelers as well as employees. Indeed, Senator Rick Scott has proposed the Fly Safe Canine COVID Detection Act, which would direct the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to conduct a feasibility study on using dogs to screen airport travelers for COVID-19. Such programs have a lot of potential to protect public health by screening for COVID in a relatively efficient and noninvasive way. In addition to airports, these programs could be extremely useful in a widespread variety of settings and could be implemented by governments as well as private entities.
However, there a number of hurdles to scaling up this type of program. With no national standards for scent dogs or private programs to certify medical detection dogs, it is difficult to standardize the dogs’ training or performance. And sniffing out COVID-19 is more complicated that sniffing out drugs or bombs because there are more variables that can alter a person’s scent, such as age and diet. Training the dogs is also expensive, and they require professional handlers.
Kim Bellware & Adela Suliman, “Coronavirus-sniffing dogs unleashed at Miami airport to detect virus in employees,” The Washington Post, Sept. 9, 2021, available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2021/09/09/covid-sniffer-dogs/
James Gorman, “Covid-Sniffing Dogs Are Accurate but Face Hurdles for Widespread Use,” The New York Times, June 12, 2021, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/12/science/covid-sniffing-dogs.html
Cathy Carter, “Forget The Nasal Swab: Dog At Sarasota Hospital Smells Patients With COVID,” WUSF, June 10, 2021, available at https://wusfnews.wusf.usf.edu/health-news-florida/2021-06-10/forget-the-nasal-swab-dog-at-sarasota-hospital-smells-patients-with-covid-19
Kent Justice, “Sen. Scott calls for study on use of canines to screen airport travelers for COVID-19,” News4Jax, Feb. 23, 2021, available at https://www.news4jax.com/news/2021/02/24/sen-scott-calls-for-study-on-use-of-canines-to-screen-airport-travelers-for-covid-19/