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I Can Smell What You Can’t Smell: Dogs Doing Magic At Airport As Rwanda Continues Fight Against Covid-19

6 Min Read

Dogs are not only very popular pets, they can also detect explosives, drugs and even diseases with their particularly well-developed sense of smell. Harry is one of the few dogs with a real job.

He is one of those species detection dogs in Rwanda. As soon as he arrives in front of the sniffing containers at Kigali International Airport (KIA) and at the Rwanda National Police (RNP) training facilities, he knows he’s now allowed to work.

Working for him means playing a pretty great game. The game is called “detect smell whether a human is infected with Sars-CoV-2”.

The rule is simple. If he recognizes a positive person, he sits down. In the study conducted in Rwanda, however, the dog is not allowed to approach human beings directly.

The person gives off scent samples by stroking the skin with a small cotton pad. The pad goes into a special “made in Rwanda” cone and the dog sniffs and reacts immediately – and with an accuracy of over 90%.

His reward? Simply a bit of time with his favorite toy or a snack.

He wasn’t born with the skill. He was trained by the German expert Hans Ebbers, together with RNP dog handlers, and a machine invented by the German expert’s company KynoScience.

And he is not alone – his three companions Peggy, Djon and Billy are there to play the same game. One hour of “game time” means 200 samples per dog. Pretty impressive isn’t it?

How did Rwanda start this?

Rwanda is not the only country doing this. Dubai and Germany are doing the same, for instance. Nevertheless, Rwanda is one of the pioneers on the African continent with regards to this research.

For purposes of efficiency and delivering quality services with little resources were the major reasons behind the project.  For example, diagnosis based on RT-PCR is expensive (50-100 USD) and time-consuming (24-48 hours).

In view of rapid identification of SARS-CoV-2 infected patients in places where large gatherings occur, this project is informed by the fact that it is paramount to explore other ways and technologies of testing.

The overall goal of this project is rapid screening of SARS-CoV-2 infected asymptomatic and symptomatic patients at KIA, therefore breaking the transmission chain and curbing the COVID-19 pandemic, says Dr. Albert Tuyishime, Head of (IHDPC) Institute of HIV/AIDS Disease Prevention and Control at Rwanda Biomedical Center (RBC).

He adds that the introduction of a Detection Dog Training System (DDTS) is expected to reduce the cost and time of SARS-CoV-2 testing of passengers at KIA.

This project is also supported by the Federal Republic of Germany with the training system and research support. An MoU was signed in November 2021 between RBC officials and the German Ambassador to Rwanda Dr. Thomas Kurz.

Details about the partnership

In January this year, Ambassador Kurz told Taarifa that the project started in Europe in June 2020, in Germany, where scientists discovered that sniffing dogs were able to detect Covid-19 infections in humans. “They started doing some research and it was a successful project,” he said, adding that, it immediately made it to the media because it was a successful project and many countries were interested in it.

“Rwanda requested us to share our experience, expertise. That was the starting point and now we are nearly there, we have already brought dogs, we had a trainer, a specialist who, for a couple of weeks did training here. We have now four trained sniffer dogs. I think it will be soon a time this project will come into operational.”

The Ambassador praised Rwanda’s government for managing the pandemic well and that this has been recognized worldwide. “We also take pride, as partners, in the sniffing dogs project I was describing as a tiny project but very visible one, which stands as an example for what we have been doing.”

RBC will be collaborating with the University of Veterinary Medicine Hanover, under Prof. Dr. Holger Volk, PhD, and his team as well as the German military dog school.

In cooperation with the University of Veterinary Medicine Hanover, research was conducted into whether the service dogs of the German Armed Forces are able to identify the novel coronavirus SARS-Schweres Akutes Respiratorisches Syndrom-CoV-2 from the smell of saliva samples – and it proved to be overwhelming and correct.

Rwanda however used for their study not just “green” dogs with no prior sniffing context but in addition “green” RNP dog handlers who were not yet familiar with coronavirus dog detection.

Meanwhile, a report is expected about the performance of the dogs and will be released soon. However, according to Dr. Tuyishime, the dogs are currently working and the results are “impressive.”

For travelers to Rwanda, even though the dogs are not visible, if your covid-19 test results are delivered on a short time, know that there might be some other ‘guys” doing the magic behind the scene.