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The Country’s First Covid-Sniffing Dog Pilot Program Is Underway at Miami International Airport

The pilot program is using a familiar approach to tackle current travel challenges.

Covid-19 K9 Unit at MIA Courtesy of Miami International Airport

Looks like officials have found a new use for a familiar–and furry–safety tactic.

Miami International Airport recently revealed that it is hosting a Covid-19 detector dog pilot program this September. Approved in March 2021 by the Board of County Commissioners, the month-long program makes MIA the first US airport to test Covid-sniffing canines. Miami-Dade’s Aviation Department is hosting the program in partnership with the Global Forensic and Justice Center (GFJC), Florida International University (FIU) and American Airlines. Miami-Dade County Commissioner Kionne L. McGhee sponsored the program to help in the airport’s ongoing efforts to stop the spread of the virus.

Two furry detectors–Cobra, a Belgian Malinois, and One Betta, a Dutch Shepard–have been specially trained for the program based on protocols created by the GFJC and FIU, and are now expected to immediately detect and respond to the virus in public spaces. Both dogs endured hundreds of training sessions at FIU’s Modesto Maidique Campus in Miami this year, and published peer-reviewed, double blind trails revealed the successful results. Experts noticed that the canines’ accuracy rates for detecting Covid-19 increased from 96 to 99 percent during testing.

In terms of how exactly the dogs identify carriers of the virus, it all comes down to a scent. The virus causes metabolic changes in a person that result in the production of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. These compounds are then excreted when a person breathes and sweats. Reportedly, those metabolic changes are common for all people, regardless of their individual scents. Both canines at MIA have been trained to detect that common, yet specific smell. If either of the K9s indicates a traveler has the odor of the virus, airport representatives will direct the individual to receive a rapid Covid test.


Covid-19 K9 Unit at MIA

One of the two dogs in MIA’s Covid-19 canine unit.  Courtesy of Miami International Airport

Detector dogs have been used by federal and local agencies across the nation for years to detect prohibited currency, drugs, explosives and agriculture—all primarily based off scent. (Some studies claim that detector dogs can identify persons with other serious diseases as well, such as diabetes, epilepsy and various cancers.) Using canines to help spot potential safety issues is not new, yet, according to FIU Provost and Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Dr. Kenneth G. Furton, that’s exactly why the program has seen success.

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,” Furton said in a statement about the program. “These dogs are another valuable tool we can leverage to help us live with this ongoing pandemic.” In the same statement, the Mayor of Miami Dade-Country, Daniella Levine Cava, also shared thoughts on the program and what may happen when it ends at the end of the month. “We’re proud to do everything we can to protect our residents,” she said. “I look forward to seeing how the airport tests their skills, and expanding the pilot program to other County facilities.”

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