A whiff of hope: smell test detects Covid-19 early warning

The whole world has felt ambushed by COVID-19, but it’s only recently that experts have realised that the sense of smell is one of the first things to be attacked – well before any other symptoms present themselves. Now, IFF (International Flavors & Fragrance) have helped develop a smell-test to take at home, donating scents from their living technology collection to aid the testing process…

Scientists now agree that the loss of smell represents an early warning sign of Coronavirus. Anosmia (smell loss) and dysgeusia (taste loss) are extremely common symptoms that may appear before any other symptoms to suspect a patient might be infected. Researchers developing the pioneering (and self-administered) test say that ‘early awareness of exposure may trigger testing sooner and improve the overall accuracy of testing for COVID-19.’ And as we now know – the earlier a possible infection can be detected and the patient made aware, the fewer other members of the public could be infected.

‘IFF has a long history of developing innovative solutions for a multitude of global challenges,’ commented Dr. Gregory Yep, IFF’s Chief Scientific and Sustaina­bility Officer. ‘Our ongoing collaboration with Dr. Albers underscores our commitment to do more good for people and planet, and I hope our donation can help contribute to a solution for this pandemic.’

The Blavatnik Sensory Disorders Fund at Harvard Medical School is enabling the building of apps that allow long-distance symptom tracking and smell testing from home, and up to 400 patients at MGH, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Spaulding Rehabiliation Hospital will be participating in their first round of testing.

After receiving a small and simple to use scratch card, the test will then be conducted on a patient’s own phone app (or via a tablet, or computer.) During the test, participants will answer a series of questions about possible COVID-19 symptoms and loss of smell and/or taste. By distributing this free smell test, the hopes are that presymptomatic detection of anosmia will trigger full testing and prompt patients to self-isolate – even if no other symptoms are present.

With the recent lowering of social distancing measures, many experts fear a second (and possibly even larger) spike in the numbers of new COVID-19 infections, it behoves us to be extra cautious and to be forewarned, as they say, is forearmed.

Dr. Mark Albers, an MGH neurologist specialising in memory and olfactory disorders, was one of the leading experts who wanted to set up the test, explaining that, ‘There is so much we don’t know about COVID-19, but the research shows that loss of smell and taste play a prominent role in identifying possible patients with the virus,’

‘If we can provide reliable self-administered tests to people and health care workers,’ Dr. Albers continued, ‘we may be able to slow the spread of the disease in the future and chart recovery of smell function, which may be helpful to determine when it is safe to reengage after having the COVID infection.’

Fascinating, isn’t it, how we are only now discovering how many medical conditions have early warning signs reflected in a loss of smell? Perhaps now, those scientists who were toiling away studying the sense of smell – which for so many years was disregarded as insignificant – will be taken more seriously; and (we hope – perhaps naively) will be given the funding they so desperately need.

By Suzy Nightingale