Cobra the dog has been hard at work at the Miami International Airport, sniffing masks proffered by American Airlines employees making their way through a security checkpoint. If she identifies a specific scent, she’ll let her handler know simply by sitting down. When this good girl sits, that means Cobra has detected an olfactory signal of the coronavirus, the virus that causes COVID-19.
Cobra, a Belgian Malinois, is one of two canines – her partner is One Betta, a Dutch shepherd – working this checkpoint at Miami International. They are part of a pilot program with the Global Forensic and Justice Center at Florida International University, using the detection dogs as a quick screen for people who have COVID-19.
Their detection rate is high, at more than 98%, and the program has been such a success that it’s being extended for another month at the airport.
If these two dogs continue to accurately detect COVID-19, they and other canines with similar training could be deployed to other places with lots of people coming and going at once, including other airports or even schools. In fact, COVID-sniffing dogs are in use in some university classrooms already.
But building up a big brigade of live animals as disease detectors involves some thorny issues, including where the animals retire once their careers are complete.
“When COVID first arose, we said let’s see if we can train these two dogs on either the virus or the odor of COVID-19,” says Kenneth Furton, PhD, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry, provost, and executive vice president at Florida International University.