Dubai Airport Introduces Coronavirus-Sniffing Dogs

Filed Under: Travel

For months there has been talk of dogs potentially being able to detect coronavirus. Well, this testing is finally becoming a reality at one global hub.

Dubai Airport’s coronavirus-sniffing dogs

Dubai Airport has become among the first in the world to introduce coronavirus-sniffing dogs. How exactly does this process work with these specially trained dogs?

  • Select arriving passengers are having swabs of their scent taken by the Dubai Health Authority
  • Once swabs are taken, dogs are placed in an isolated room, where they’ll sniff multiple samples
  • If they sniff traces of coronavirus they’ll sit down
  • Dogs have apparently been able to identify those with coronavirus with 92% accuracy
  • The results are available within minutes, since there’s no special labs that the samples have to be sent off to

Here’s a video outlining the process (and how cute are those dogs?!):

What are the implications of this?

Dubai Airport is now requiring all passengers traveling through the airport to get tested prior to travel, and those entering Dubai from a high-risk area will also have to get tested again upon arrival.

As a result, the dogs are just intended as an extra layer of protection, and don’t replace testing, as Dubai has among the most stringent testing requirements of any airport in the world.

I do still have one major question, though — what are the implications if a dog decides someone does have coronavirus? 92% accuracy is good when you consider this is just a quick test, but that’s far from conclusive.

If a dog detects traces of coronavirus, are those people then given a PCR test and asked to self-quarantine until results come back, or does the process differ?

Bottom line

Dogs at Dubai Airport are now sniffing swabs taken from passengers, to determine if their scent contains any traces of coronavirus. The test results come back within minutes, and are apparently 92% accurate.

In general I’m supportive of this. This is a reasonably accurate, very quick test that can be performed on passengers. Even though Dubai already has strict testing requirements, this is an added layer of protection.

I do still wonder what this ultimately means for travelers, though. What happens if the dog determines you have coronavirus, especially when you consider that they’ll get it wrong nearly one out of every ten times?

  1. Great article and love your blog Ben, but just curious what the point of offering a “bottom line” at the end of a post when it’s as short as these? Maybe posts would read easier if they were only offered when content takes longer to read? Just a thought – thanks 🙂

  2. Use of these dogs is finally a sliver of light at the horizon: I think the only way to return air travel to a degree of pre COVID-19 normalcy is to have reliable screening in some way before or while passengers go through security in order to create a COVID-19-free terminal and departing flights…and this would have to be a globally uniform approach. Problem right now is that swabbing and testing takes a period of time that exceeds a reasonable wait at the airport pre-departure, and that testing in many countries is simply not available even within 24 or 48 hours pre-flight. I do not understand why developed countries like the US have not been able to ramp up production and testing over the past 6 months that we are now in this crisis – yet, US industry can produce 300+ million cans of soda per DAY..where are the priorities in this economy?

  3. How were these dogs trained? Were trained with swabs/saliva from healthy and COVID-19 infected people or healthy, COVID-19 infected and another virus infected people ,influenza for example? Are they picking up scent associated with COVID-19 infection or any kind of illness/infection? Can they discriminate between people with COVID-19 infection and other diseases? This seems like a totally stupid idea to me.

  4. If I rub some peanut butter on my crotch, will I get a freebie on arrival from the Covid dogs or do I need to wait for Mohammed to meet me at the Crown Plaza?

  5. Currently available COVID-19 PCR tests range in sensitivity between 71% and 95% – meaning the dogs at DXB are about as good as a swab at telling if you have the virus.

  6. This is a gteat idea and a possible solution to stop those infected from flying and therefore spreading the virus to healthier ones! Travellers are forced to control themselves and do testing before they travel. Or otherwise risk being quarantined for 14 days in isolation.

  7. UPenn’s Vet school has been studying this and training dogs since April. Of course, Dubai debuts the dogs first!

  8. I have a pretty good accuracy too depending on where I am. If in Taiwan I probably have >99.999% accuracy by just declaring a negative on everyone that passes through.

  9. @Matt. This is not a stupid idea at all but extremely innovative. They should only identify people with active COVID-19 infection (predictive value of a positive test) They should not identify a negative sample as positive, but may miss a positive case. Search medical detection dogs. The exact same principle and drug/explosive testing. Each dog is trained to detect specific drug or explosives, not just all drugs. The benefit is that the dog could screen ALL people prior to immigration or customs (this is routine in Australia and New Zealand). The problem is training enough dogs in a short period as the hours they can work is restricted.

  10. Lol, for years security theater was rightfully scrutinized on these very pages, even to the point of the author refusing to give his name at a security checkpoint. But now, laughable Covid porn such as this is completely acceptable. This page has lost its way.

  11. Hey Ben, no coverage of your time in Turkey? Why not? Haven’t read anything about this in more than a week.

  12. Love it.. I read an article this was happening and so pleased to see it…
    They’ve detected drugs for years
    (I was once asked (by DEA) in MIA before I went down to baggage hall to hold a tissue in my hand with traces ..
    He sniffed me out amongst many in baggage hall…

    And yes I was cleared of traces later

  13. An average dog’s sense of smell is ~100X stronger than a human’s, with certain breeds 200-300X stronger (such as the German shepherds and Belgian Malinois pictured). This is not at all implausible.
    There are also multiple medical procedures and screening tests with sensitivities well below 92% so this is another win for the canines.

  14. As mentioned above, a dog in general has a sense of smell far superior to any human’s & most mechanical devices. It also has the added advantage of being instantaneous.

    For example; the breeds chosen for explosives or drug detection can detect the odour through more than 30 layers of 1mm vacuum sealed plastic. Most plastic is much less than 1mm thickness, only a fraction of that.

    Dogs do not discriminate on sex, colour, race, size, nor voting pattern etc – the detection is a game for them & they’ll play it with anyone regardless.

    Weird fact – some people have much better sense of smell (not as good as a dog but say 20-30x better than average. In some documented cases, for example, they can smell if a person has cancer BEFORE any medical test/scan reveals it. First case years ago I heard of was a woman started complaining that her husband ‘smelt different’. Some weeks later he was finally diagnosed with very early stage cancer (cannot remember what type, & no it was not mouth or throat cancer).

    For some reason (dogs don’t make political donations whilst phama companies do?) there’s 3/10th of nothing in funding for expanding research into, or training, of cancer-detecting dogs.

  15. Ditto: Hey Ben, no coverage of your time in Turkey? Why not? Haven’t read anything about this in more than a week.

  16. 92% of what? Is the other 8% false positive or false negative? Lots of other info needed before understanding the usefulness of this, like specificity, sensitivity, and percent of the population tested who actually have the disease. You don’t need a degree in medical statistics to understand this. It involves 3 simple multiplycations, once you have the three numbers. My Advanced Algebra students understand it and can do it. Yet these questions are almost never mentioned by anyone describing a Coronavirus test

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