COVID-sniffing dogs now on duty at Miami International Airport

Sep 12, 2021

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Back in August 2020, Helsinki Airport (HEL) and Dubai International Airport (DXB) tested COVID-detecting dogs. Now Miami International Airport (MIA) is the first US airport to pilot a program with canines that can sniff out COVID-19.

The detector dogs – Cobra (a Belgian Malinois) and ‘One Betta (a Dutch Shepherd) – are specially trained by the Global Forensic and Justice Center (GFJC) at Florida International University (FIU) to alert to the scent of COVID-19. Both dogs are currently stationed at an American Airlines employee security checkpoint.

COVID-19 can, evidently, be sniffed out because the virus causes metabolic changes in a person that result in the production of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Those VOCs are excreted by a person’s breath and in their sweat, producing a scent that trained dogs can detect. The metabolic changes are common for all people, regardless of their individual scents.

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In the MIA pilot program, if a dog indicates an individual is carrying the odor of the virus, that person is directed to get a rapid COVID test, which is available at the airport. If that test is positive, the employee will then be asked to leave, and quarantine based on Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidance. During the pilot, employees have a right to refuse the screening.

“The COVID-19 detector dog pilot program is the latest effort by MIA to serve as a test bed for new innovations in safety and security,” said Ralph Cutié, Miami International Airport interim director, in a statement. “We are proud to do our part in the fight against COVID-19, and we hope to see this pilot program potentially benefit the rest of Miami-Dade County and airports across the country.”

‘One Betta. Photo courtesy of the Miami International Airport.

Detector dogs like Cobra and ‘One Better have proven to be among the most reliable tools available to identify substances based on the odors they emit. At MIA, federal and local agencies already use detector dogs to sniff out prohibited currency, drugs, explosives, and agriculture. And in previous studies detector dogs have been trained to reliably detect people with diseases such as diabetes, epilepsy, and some cancers.

“Being able to apply decades of research in this way, to provide an additional layer of protection to airport employees at Miami International Airport, it’s humbling,” said Kenneth G. Furton, FIU provost and professor of chemistry and biochemistry, said in a statement. “These dogs are another valuable tool we can leverage to help us live with this ongoing pandemic.”

Cobra and ‘One Betta are old hands at this sniffing business. “They were also trained to detect Laurel Wilt in avocado trees in Florida and Rapid Ohi’a Death in Ohi’a trees in Hawaii using the same scientifically backed protocols,” Furton told The Points Guy.

Cobra. Photo of Cobra courtesy FIU.

The MIA COVID-sniffing pilot is operating a bit differently than the ones that took place in Dubai and Helsinki airports.

In both of those cases, the dogs were not near the humans, says Furton. “The passengers wiped their sweat from their underarms or skin, and the sample was brought to the dogs that then did the detection work.” At MIA, the employees are asked to remove their masks and then the dogs go down a line, smelling each one to determine if the presence of COVID is there. “It’s a little faster, only because you do not have to collect a sample for the dogs to start their work,” Furton explains.

At MIA the pilot program was originally scheduled to run from August 23 to September, but it has already been extended another 30 days into October so more data can be gathered.

“It’s receiving great feedback,” says Furton, “And more importantly, it allows us as a research institution to collect more valuable data. We’re going to be living with this virus for a while, and we want to know as much as we can on how to adapt to keep up our daily lives.”

Photos courtesy of Miami International Airport. 

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