As AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami reopens to a limited number of fans Thursday, the Miami Heat is bringing out dogs it is billing as “coronavirus detection dogs” to screen guests and employees as they arrive at the facility. The team will be the first in the NBA to use canines to screen the public.
The science isn’t yet clear whether dogs can, in fact, detect coronavirus infection in people. The team has been trying the dogs out on a smaller scale to screen personnel — and “we learned a lot during that time,” Matthew Jafarian, Miami Heat’s executive vice president for business strategy, told CNN.
If the dog sits next to you, the Miami Heat says, that signals to the handler that it might have detected Covid-19. A staff member will then help you and your party with a refund, and provide additional health and safety information — but you and your party will not be allowed to enter the arena.
Jafarian said the Miami Heat view the detection dogs as just one tool in a much larger arsenal of Covid-19 safety measures — which also includes a health screening questionnaire, a mandatory mask policy, cashless concession stands, not allowing food and drinks in the arena bowl, and physical distancing, among other tools.
Canine experts emphasize that while research on coronavirus detection dogs appears promising, it’s not yet definitive. Studies exploring how reliable dogs are in detecting an active coronavirus infection remain ongoing — and there are many questions left to answer.
“We’re just such on the front edge of it,” he said. “But it is very exciting to see that we could have another tool in detecting coronavirus.”
A sniff of new research, but findings are not definitive
Early in the pandemic, the Miami Heat first explored using detection dogs — along with other approaches — to screen for the novel coronavirus in its facilities.
“We looked at a variety of options. There were Breathalyzer tests that we looked at. We looked at traditional diagnostic tests, like rapid antigen and PCR tests. And we thought through operationally how we could administer that to hundreds and thousands of people coming into the building.”
Jafarian added that around that same time, some early studies were publishing out of Europe and elsewhere. The studies are unproven and published as pilot and proof-of-concept papers. When asked about the research not being definitive, Jafarian responded that he originally was skeptical, but found the studies “compelling” because they reached similar results. He said that the Miami Heat is taking its dog program “very slowly” until it learns more.
The researchers reported in their study that among 1,012 samples, the dogs correctly identified 157 positive samples and 792 negative samples, but incorrectly identified 33 samples as negative and 30 samples as positive. The dogs “achieved an overall average detection rate of 94%,” the researchers wrote.
But those studies were conducted in controlled environments and there was some repeated use of samples — so it couldn’t be ruled out whether a dog was memorizing the odor of a sample. More research is needed to determine whether similar findings might emerge in the real world, and among a larger group of detection dogs.
“We saw what the airport in Finland was doing, and then an airport in Dubai, and [governments] in Mexico and Chile,” said Miami Heat’s Jafarian.
Then a couple of months later, a new company called SNIFF approached the Miami Heat with the offer to use detection dogs as a coronavirus screening tool in the team’s arena.
Jafarian said, “we decided to make a step forward.”
‘The virus is new,’ using detection dogs is not
Aron Shteierman, SNIFF’s chief executive officer, told CNN that he has no background in dog training, but when the coronavirus pandemic began, he saw canines as a possible quick and non-invasive screening tool.
In the spring of last year, Shteierman turned his idea into a business: SNIFF. Next, he said that he contacted the company Global K9 Protection Group and asked to partner, specifically to use and train the company’s dogs for coronavirus detection. Global K9 Protection Group agreed.
SNIFF and Global K9 Protection Group then reached out to the Miami Heat.
Shteierman confirmed “we do not use live virus in order to train the canines,” but he would not share specific details about the dogs’ training process with CNN. He said it was “proprietary” information.
CNN was unable to vet the company’s research behind the detection dogs, as well as the dogs’ efficacy, because it hasn’t been published yet. For that research, Shteierman said, “We took the canines to a testing site where PCR testing was being done and we did comparison results.”
Yet the dogs do not substitute getting an actual diagnosis from a PCR test or medical professional, said the Global K9 Protection Group’s Larkin.
“It’s important for people to understand that this technology and this solution is evolving, and it doesn’t replace going to a doctor or a PCR test,” Larkin told CNN. “The dog is designed to be an initial human body screening tool, but if there was a positive indication, our first recommendation would be go seek professional medical attention and get a PCR test.”
‘Some level of evidence, but I don’t think it’s ironclad’
There are still significant questions.
And when it comes to the coronavirus specifically, it remains unclear what exactly dogs could be picking up when they are trained to detect Covid-19.
In the two previous studies from Germany, France and Lebanon — published in the journals BMC Infectious Diseases and Plos One — both research teams posed that their dogs might be detecting the “volatile organic compounds” that are produced during coronavirus infections.
Adalja said that more research on coronavirus-detection dogs is needed.
“There’s starting to be some level of evidence, but I don’t think it’s ironclad,” Adalja said. “It’s not definitive yet.”