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Ahead by a nose: Covid sniffing dogs prevent surveillance overreach

A UK security company says it’s ditching some surveillance tech in favor of specially-trained dogs who can detect the coronavirus

A British security agency says it is giving up on high-tech solutions to the pandemic in favor of Covid-19 detecting sniffer dogs — because they are a “softer touch.”

Already deployed at Helsinki airport and in airports in the United Arab Emirates,  researchers say specially-trained dogs can sniff out a person infected with Covid-19 within seconds  — and with almost 100% accuracy. “The results are great,” said Jonathan Ratcliffe, director of the UK security company Guards, during a phone call. Ratcliffe is advocating for the use of dogs in shopping centers and airports. “With the right deployment I think dogs would be really good: they’re a lot less intrusive and negative.”

As countries across Europe stumble into second lockdowns, a series of ever more high-tech and innovative solutions to the pandemic have been fraught with problems. The rollout of Covid-19 tracking apps around the world has had limited success: the UK had to scrap its first version and start again after it turned out the app was incompatible with iPhones and would be a disaster for user privacy

France’s StopCovid app was only downloaded by a fraction of the population and managed to flag just a few dozen risk contacts. China’s color-coded health-tracing system has added a new layer of security and data collection to what was already a surveillance state, and has meant those without smartphones  — or the ability to use them  — have been locked out of vital public services, like buses and stores. 

Other forms of technology have also been plagued with issues. Heat detecting cameras have been flagged as inaccurate, while the UK health regulator warned temperature checks should not be relied on as an accurate way to track the virus. “They do not perform to the level required to accurately support a medical diagnosis,” Graeme Tunbridge, the Director of Devices at the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, said in a statement in July. 

Dogs, with their cuddly appearance and non-invasive but highly accurate capacity to detect the virus among crowds of people, could be the solution.

Ratcliffe’s company has already tried to roll out more high-tech approaches to the pandemic, including facemask-detecting cameras, which were installed at the entrances of a garden center in the north of England. He described how his company received a series of complaints as customers called the cameras an invasion of privacy, citing the disabilities act — disabled people in the UK are exempt from wearing a mask.

“It’s not something we’re going to push for, really,” Ratcliffe said of the cameras. “It’s a very blunt instrument, and people really didn’t like that.” 

Dogs, who have noses up to 100 million times more sensitive than humans, have historically been trained to sniff out diseases including cancer and malaria. Now, companies around the world are seizing on the idea of using pooches to lead us out of lockdown.

Studies are also being conducted in Germany, France and the UK, where six spaniels, Labrador retrievers and Labradoodles are being trained up in a study led by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Last week, the UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, met some of the dogs during a training demonstration in London’s Paddington station.

“If successful, this trial could allow us to rapidly screen high numbers of people, even those who are asymptomatic. This could revolutionize how we diagnose this virus, helping return our lives back to some sort of normality,” Professor James Logan, a lead researcher on the study at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said in a statement.

Russia has pinned its hopes on a rare hybrid breed called Shalaika canine-jackals, first developed in the 1970s by Soviet biologists to smell out opium traffickers on the Afghanistan border. Aeroflot have recruited 15 of the sable-colored super-sniffers.

The snag? Training up a dog to detect Covid-19 takes about six months. “It’s not like ordering something from a factory,” Ratcliffe said.

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Isobel Cockerell

Isobel Cockerell is a reporter with Coda Story. A graduate of Columbia Journalism School, she has also reported for WIRED, USA Today, Rappler, The Daily Beast, the Huffington Post and others.

Get in touch via [email protected] Follow @isocockerell