Meet Cobra and One Betta: Miami International Airport's COVID-Sniffing Dogs

One Betta, a Dutch shepherd, has been trained to sniff out COVID-infected individuals.
One Betta, a Dutch shepherd, has been trained to sniff out COVID-infected individuals. Photo courtesy of Miami International Airport
A COVID-19 testing method that might just be among the most accurate wasn’t made in a lab or even developed by a major pharmaceutical company. In fact, it has four legs and indeed is man's best friend: Meet the virus-sniffing canines of Miami International Airport.

This month, the airport is piloting a program developed by the Global Forensic and Justice Center at Florida International University (FIU) that employs dogs — specifically their sense of smell — to help identify travelers who may be infected with COVID-19.

For now, during the trial phase of the program, two dogs are posted at an employee security checkpoint: a Belgian Malinois named Cobra, and a Dutch shepherd named One Betta.

"This pandemic has pushed us to innovate to stop the spread," Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said in a statement announcing the effort. "We're proud to do everything we can to protect our residents. I look forward to seeing how the airport tests their skills and expanding the pilot program to other county facilities."

Cobra and One Betta have been trained to identify metabolic changes that occur in a person’s body after contracting COVID-19, specifically the production of so-called volatile organic compounds — chemicals that can indicate the presence of the disease. The dogs then sniff the used facemasks of those in line at the checkpoint. If one of the dogs picks out a potentially infected person, that individual is then given a rapid test before they can proceed with travel.

Airport officials say that MIA is the first airport in the United States to employ the new testing method and point to published peer-reviewed and double-blind trials that showed an accuracy rate ranging from 96 to 99 percent. Other nations, including the United Arab Emirates and Finland, began testing the idea last summer.

Cobra and One Betta took part in hundreds of training sessions this year on FIU's Modesto Maidique campus, according to the airport.

The Miami-Dade County Commission gave its stamp of approval in March to a resolution, also backed by the aviation department, spelling out the basics of the partnership, which also includes American Airlines. The trial run is expected to last through September.

After the trial run wraps at the end of the month, researchers from the university will continue to calibrate data based on results from the program and work to refine the training that helps the dogs sniff out the virus.

"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," Kenneth Furton, FIU's provost as well as an expert in forensic chemistry, said in a statement. "These dogs are another valuable tool we can leverage to help us live with this ongoing pandemic."
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Michael Majchrowicz is a staff writer at Miami New Times. He studied journalism at Indiana University and has reported for PolitiFact, The New York Times, Washington Post, the Post and Courier, and Tampa Bay Times.