Near Moscow, “jackal dogs” – a breed created by a scientist in Soviet times – are training to detect COVID-19 patients at airports, as the epidemic rebounds strongly in Russia.
In the laboratory of the Khimki dog training center, northwest of the capital, a little gray dog sniffs a dozen jars with urine samples.
Then the animal designates one of them and receives a small piece of meat as a reward.
To learn to recognize the virus, dogs exercise with urine, because “it is the purest substance, without foreign odors of cosmetics or perfume”, explains Elena Bataïeva, director of the dog training center of Russian airline Aeroflot.
According to the official, the virus itself does not smell, but the urine of patients smells differently. However, there is no risk of contamination for humans or dogs during these exercises.
“Dog handlers do not work with the virus. Urine does not contain it. This has been verified and confirmed “by Russian researchers from the Vektor center in Siberia, which is developing one of the Russian anti-COVID vaccines, underlines Mme Batayeva, during a press presentation on Friday.
Aeroflot CEO Vitali Saveliev recently indicated that these dogs could also detect coronavirus patients by sniffing a plane passenger’s mask or a sample of his saliva.
This project to strengthen health security at airports comes at a time when Russia has broken its record for daily coronavirus contamination.
Friday, 12,126 new cases were identified, a toll exceeding the peak of May, when the country observed a strict containment which is however not on the agenda currently.
Since the start of the epidemic, the country has officially recorded 1,272,238 cases, including 22,257 which have been fatal, and it remains fourth in the world in the number of contaminations.
A recreated race
The Aeroflot dog training center has a total of 69 “chalaïkas”, a breed obtained during the USSR by crossing between dogs and jackals, but which was not officially registered in Russia until two years ago.
These dogs with a particularly sensitive sense of smell have been patrolling Moscow airports in recent years to detect explosives.
On a small lot surrounded by a metal enclosure with barbed wire, a red-haired dog, Iara, turns anxiously around a car and very quickly spots a metal box imitating the smell of explosives, hidden under the vehicle.
“These dogs learn quickly and are able to pick up a scent at a distance of 1.5 meters,” says Mme Batayeva.
Originally, chalaikas were designed in 1977 by biologist Klim Soulimov.
“It was at a time in the USSR when the problem of drug trafficking appeared. The dogs usually used by the police (laïkas, editor’s note) had difficulty working in the hot climates ”of the Soviet republics of Central Asia, says Mme Batayeva.
The scientist Soulimov then decided to cross the laika [qui garde traditionnellement les rennes dans le nord du pays] with the jackal, living in the southern regions.
After the fall of the USSR, the population of chalaikas was practically lost, but Aeroflot dog handlers decided to revive the breed, making a new crossbreed of dogs with a jackal.
The jackal “father” who gave life to several generations of chalaïkas still lives at the Khimki training center.
The first results of this experiment to detect the virus should be known in early December.