European Airports Will Use Covid-Sniffing Dogs And A Virus Gargle Test To Bring Travel Back To Normal

While U.S. Senators push legislation mandating that the TSA do temperature checks at airports, even though this does nothing to identify asymptomatic or presymptomatic virus spreaders or people with Covid-19 who do not have a fever, the rest of the world is passing us by.

Marriott’s CEO endorses ‘hygiene theater’ to bring back travelers when there are things we could do to promote an actually safe travel experience.

Right now what’s holding back travel is a fear of the virus.

  • People might be exposed when they travel

  • When they get where they’re going, there may not be much reason to be there because other people are afraid of getting the virus or because of government restrictions. Offices are closed, limiting business travel. People won’t attend events, limiting networking value. Bars are closed and so are many tourist attractions.

  • Regime uncertainty, the rules around travel keep changing. It may be possible to go somewhere today, but entry restrictions could change between the time you buy your ticket and when you plan to travel. Or rules for quarantining upon return could be added even while you’re gone.

This could be solved with widespread testing and verification. Helsinki airport is running a trial with Covid-sniffing dogs, following an earlier trial in Dubai. The dogs checked sweat samples and correctly identified Covid positive passengers 90% of the time, based on PCR test verification.

Meanwhile a self-service spit test will be trialed in two European airports and Lufthansa is working to deploy Roche antigen tests. Though Lufthansa has already received a government bailout, unlike many airlines they aren’t delaying testing while trying to get their government to pay for it.

My own preferred solution extends far beyond airports. Cheap, at home strip tests (think of something similar to a pregnancy test) that identify whether or not you’re Covid-positive. The primary obstacle to cheap daily at home testing isn’t technology, it’s the FDA. Set this up to read results through an app, and the app could become your passport not just to travel but also bring back indoor activities.

Imagine that your favorite local restaurant required diners to show a negative test through this app in order to enter the premises. They could give all of their guests confidence that it’s highly likely no one inside has the virus, and that it’s a safe environment. People could dine indoors safely, and they’re return because they’d know it’s safe (as long as they trusted the business to deliver on the promise to only admit people who presented negative).

Passengers would feel confident returning to air travel knowing that it’s highly likely other passengers were negative, because they’d all been screened. Quarantines wouldn’t be necessary on arrival. And borders could be opened as well, though some countries might still wish to do cheap testing on arrival or employ Covid-sniffing dogs, while employing testing for those the dogs suspected were positive. Offices could open, too, although many of us would probably still work from home.

Back in the spring Paul Romer did the math that the whole country could re-open safely with 25 million tests per day. I didn’t think we’d ever have that much capacity (most days today testing volume in the U.S. runs between 650,000 and 800,000 reported tests). But new technologies make it possible to scale testing beyond even this threshold, even if results won’t report to the government and wouldn’t be included in all official statistics anyway even if they were since many states only report PCR test results.

You may not like this world, where you’re required to use an app to go to a restaurant or fly, but these are all voluntary activities and the requirement would be imposed by individual businesses. The risk really comes when a requirement is standardized by the government (having the TSA do temperature checks versus the airlines, or a federal mask mandate – while today a two year old who cannot wear a mask can still fly Delta). Though I suspect it’s likely that all international airlines would adopt this plan if governments used it as a way to re-open borders, and domestic airlines if states used it as a way to relax quarantine rules.

IATA wants systematic testing to bring back travel. I don’t think airport testing is a good idea because it brings large numbers of people to the airport (indoors, potentially crowded) before they even know if they have the virus. Airlines requiring app-based reporting of home strip tests screens out most infected passengers prior to arriving at the airport, so is even safer. Of course we could all just take the prophylactic nasal spray that’s entering clinical trials…

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. What happens if you’re say, a Nigerian citzen on a single-entry-visa, who arrives at Frankfurt airport at the end of your european holiday, and the covid-dog rightly or wrongly indicates that you’re positive.

    Due to the nature of your single entry visa, you can’t leave the airport any more. As a Nigerian citizen you’re no longer allowed reentry to EU, or risk overstaying causing future bans

    And now you’re stuck at the airport terminal for days on end till this is resolved. Back in March/April 2020, this kind of airport testing and rules caused tons of people from developing countries to be stuck at airports because they didn’t have the right test results.

  2. I don’t think you understand how ELISAs work e.g. home antibody/antigen tests. The pregnancy test does not detect an antigen but a chemical – it’s basically a modified litmus paper test. That’s why it’s fast and cheap. ELISAs are more difficult to create and ensure they deliver consistent results. The closest analogy would be an HIV test such as Oraquick. That test is $30-40 each. However, it does not work well for early disease so you either need to wait before testing or do more than one test. I am not sure about how COVID would be approached so the time frame is questionable. Regardless it would not be super cheap and reliability would definitely be worse than a lab run assay (which is already not great).
    Between this and your comments about masks, you really need to expand your basic science/ medicine knowledge or stick to travel which is clearly your field.

  3. @VML I’m not suggesting the strips work the same way scientifically that pregnancy tests do, but cheap at home test strips are not only possible but exist today and would run $1 – $5.

    Of course reliability would be worse than a lab-run test. That doesn’t matter. (And it wouldn’t be that much worse.) It would be more reliable than what we have today for most people, which is total lack of knowledge. In any case we do not need to know if someone has traces of the virus, we only need to know if they’re shedding virus and contagious. That’s the stage at which such strips would be most reliable.

    What mask comments do you take issue with?

  4. I’d give my pinkie finger for an immediate return to freedom of movement across international borders. So vaccines, testing, masks, whatever are certainly fine by me. If they actually meant a return to freedom of movement. Sadly there will likely be no international consensus anytime soon regarding what the criteria for entry will be.

    Until there’s standardization and consistency we’ll be in an endless loop of uncertainty. And who’s stepping up to take the lead to make that happen? Nobody.

    Not a fan of the current US administration, but it’s folly to blame them for the rest of the world’s lack of leadership. Anymore than it would deserve credit if we had a unified international approach. Seems like every country has their own agenda and threshold for infection tolerance. What test or vaccine could possibly change that? Especially if places like Thailand or Australia have a goal of zero infections to fully reopen which may take 3+ years even with vaccines and testing.

    Please, tell me I’m wrong!! I hate being pessimistic. I want to be wrong.

  5. If you think we as a society can all agree upon rules, you are joking. The right is politicizing this to the point that they don’t even want to wear MASKS, much less test to go into their local restaurants. These are good developments, but until we get to a point that everyone agrees to follow the same rules, stuff like this is worthless.

  6. More epidemiologist Gary…

    This article is a hodge-podge of wishcasting that show an extremely poor understanding of both science and logistics.

    Won’t happen.

  7. So I spent a month and half over the summer, traveling around the US. My thoughts are: You don’t need “hygiene” or “health theater” in order to bring travelers back. All you need to do is: Open up.

    Every place I visited that was open, was experiencing higher then normal tourism, as people were escaping their locked down locales. In South Dakota and Idaho? Packed with people escaping California, Washington, and Colorado respectively. In Georgia? Various states around the area, helped by cheap airfares.

    Point being: Travel and tourism is down, not because people are afraid. It’s down, because nobody wants to travel somewhere and have only half the available things open. People want to enjoy the destination that they likely saved and paid a good deal to visit in full, not in some half-ass locked down capacity.

  8. THE ONLY long term solution is a proven effective vaccine after its been in the wild for a period of time everything else bandaids period. Are you willing to get inside an aluminum tube for 10/12/15 hours trusting a dog sniffing or spitting into a cup? Walk around a EK 380 sometime flying from DBX to SFO.

    I was once on a EK from Dubai to SFO we departed the gate and returned three times due to sick passengers in the main cabin, then an hour later we departed only to have another one get sick in-flight. All from a single country upon landing another hour while HAZMAT Medics etc locked the airplane down. So are you really wanting to fly? Disclaimer I served in the military to some real funky places during my career bit nothing like this virus

  9. Meanwhile its being reported that almost 11,000 people have been exposed to covid on airplanes in 2020. Meaning being within six feet of a person with covid on their flight. Guess flying isn’t as safe as people try to make it out to be.

  10. @ Mangar — No, travel is down because some people are smart and patient enough to realize that a year stuck at home is no big deal. It is the impatient people that are driving the case numbers sky-high. I have now become accustomed to being home, and while I would like to return to travel, staying home is way cheaper and less stressful.

  11. More testing won’t make me more confident putting myself into congregate situations. This is an airborne virus that is extremely contagious, it causes very serious illness, can be fatal, and is still spreading rapidly. Fundamentally, I have a lack of trust in both governments and institutions who both seem concerned only with the performance of the stock market. I am staying at home, not traveling, and not spending money. A vaccine is pretty much the only thing that would change my mind at this point.

  12. @Tprophet – you are certainly welcome to do as you feel best for you but I, personally, prefer to LIVE my life instead of being hunkered down worried about something I likely won’t catch or if I do has a 90%+ case of being asymptomatic or only having mild symptoms (BTW I am 62 but in good health w no immune system issues and make sure I focus on antioxidants and vitamins A/C/D in foods I eat to ensure my health is the best possible).

    Don’t get me wrong – I distance around people I don’t know, wear a mask when indoors (even if not required under various state/local statutes) and wash my hands regularly (plus travel w wipes and hand sanitizer). That being said I have traveled since June (including flying) and have been on 6-7 casino trips so far. I’ve had no health issues and don’t expect any but in case I do get sick I am fine with whatever happens.

    I REFUSE to be so scared I don’t live my life. Again, I do it responsibly but feel sad for people that won’t leave their house without a hazmat suit on!!

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