Miami International Airport has officially gone to the dogs. A pilot study of the Florida Department of Health Miami-Dade County is using a non-traditional approach to detect the coronavirus.
Employees at Miami International Airport who go through the standard security check for weapons and other prohibited items now have another layer of screening before starting work: a sniff test from Cobra and One Betta.
Cobra, a female Belgian Malinois, and One Betta, a Dutch shepherd, are 7-year-old dogs trained to detect the presence of the coronavirus. The keen-nosed canines are part of a pilot program at Miami International, one of the nation’s busiest airports — and the first to employ dogs in the battle against the coronavirus.
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 seldom wrong,” Furton said of Cobra.
Furton and his colleagues began their research with the dogs shortly after the start of the pandemic last year. Though Miami is the first American airport to use dogs to detect the virus, countries like the United Arab Emirates and Finland began testing the idea last summer.
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 infection 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.
However, nearly any breed 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.
“If you’re in line and you do have covid, you may be less likely to chance it,” he said.
The two-week-old pilot is first tested on airport and airline employees and will head to a busier airport section in a few weeks. Furton expects it will eventually include travelers and not just employees. Like the millimeter-wave scanners, the doggy detection method is voluntary; those with phobias or religious and health concerns can opt-out.
“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. It 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.”
The dog sniff test is just one part of the airport’s security plan. The study, which will continue through the end of the year, is the first to occur in the U.S.