Cobra and One Betta will spend their shifts sniffing the face coverings of employees passing through a checkpoint to detect the presence of the virus in sweat, breath and scents due to metabolic changes that the virus causes in the human body. If a dog signals the odor of the virus on a person, that individual will be asked to take a rapid coronavirus test, the airport said.
“The big ‘aha’ for me was not only could the dogs be trained for this work, but that they were so accurate,” said Kenneth G. Furton, a provost and professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Florida International University.
The canines’ accuracy rivals traditional coronavirus tests and even some lab equipment, Furton said. He cited a double-blind study published by FIU, which found the animals achieved 96 to 99 percent accuracy rates for detecting the virus.
One Betta’s accuracy rate was 98.1 percent, while Cobra’s was an astonishing 99.4 percent.
“Everybody, including humans, are wrong at some point. But she’s almost never wrong,” Furton said of Cobra.
With 50 times as many smell receptors as humans, dogs have long been used to sniff out not only drugs and explosives but also medical conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, blood sugar level shifts in people with diabetes, and certain types of cancer.
Cobra’s nose was previously put to use sniffing out disease in plants: She was trained to detect the scent of laurel wilt, a disease that kills avocado trees, and rapid ohia death, a fungal disease devastating a native tree considered sacred in Hawaii, Furton said.
Though the dogs are highly accurate (and perhaps preferable to a cold nasal swab), training coronavirus-detecting dogs can also be time-consuming and costly, making it a difficult program to scale up. Dogs must also meet certain standards and established protocols to be certified for the work.
Nearly any breed, however, can be trained for the task: Cobra and One Betta are purebreds, but two of the other certified dogs in the program were mixed-breed rescue dogs — “pound puppies,” Furton said.
And in an airport setting, mechanical sensors and tests can’t match the convenience of the animals whose detections are almost instantaneous, Furton said. If deployed more widely to sniff out passengers, the dogs may also deter would-be travelers inclined to fib about their coronavirus exposure or infection status.
“A lot of this is acceptance,” Furton added. “If you think people are resistant to dogs, imagine releasing bees in the airport.”
Florida has seen a record number of deaths from the coronavirus this summer and has remained a persistent hot spot amid the surge in new infections brought on by the delta variant. On Thursday, the state’s seven-day average for new single-day cases was 14,276, according to data tracked by The Washington Post.
Florida’s high caseload is likely to keep the dogs busy during the next two months of the pilot — though Furton made sure to emphasize that they’re rewarded for their hard work.
“In this case, their favorite toy is a rubber ball, a Kong,” Furton said. “When they see the Kong getting pulled out, they know it’s time to work. And they know if they get this right, they get their playtime.”
Source: Washington Post