New chemosensory COVID-19 tests in development will be a cost-effective and easily producible way to bring fast testing to homes, schools, and under-resourced communities.

What you need to know

COVID-19 affects each person differently. Some people get very sick, while others don’t even realize they’ve been exposed to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease. Most people fall somewhere in between. For people with mild sickness, one symptom in particular may clue them in to the fact that they’re sick: loss of smell or taste, or things suddenly smell or taste different. In one study, 4 out of 5 people (80%) infected with the virus said they noticed a change in their ability to smell and taste.

For the researchers trying to create better tests for COVID-19, this unusual symptom provides an opportunity. Tests that are being developed now will be able to help people with or without other symptoms measure their sense of taste and smell to find out whether they have COVID-19.

What are the researchers doing?

The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) has funded four new projects that aim to develop smell and taste (chemosensory) tests for COVID-19 at four research sites:

  • The Ohio State University, Columbus: This team is creating a test that uses different flavors of sweet and sour hard candy to test people’s senses of smell and taste. Like a temperature check at a building entrance, the test can be used in large communities like college campuses to scan a lot of people quickly. The researchers note that the fact that the test involves candy means people will be more likely to want to take it.
  • Monell Chemical Senses Center, Philadelphia: Loss of sense of smell is a more common COVID-19 symptom than fever, but it can also be less noticeable. SCENTinel is an inexpensive and convenient smell test for COVID-19 that measures three smell loss factors: odor detection, odor intensity, and odor identification. This quick test can be used in high-volume sites like hospitals, schools, and offices.
  • University of Florida, Gainesville: This project has two goals: first, to create simple, effective smell tests that people can give themselves, in combination with telemedicine visits with a health care provider; and second, to determine whether these tests are a good way to monitor COVID-19 spread in a community.
  • ADK Group, LLC, Boston: This team is developing an at-home test for COVID-19 that includes a disposable peel-and-sniff card and a web application. The test can be repeated several times a week, which will help people monitor their sense of smell and notice if it changes.

The research is supported through the Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics Radical (RADx-rad) initiative, which supports new, non-traditional approaches to addressing gaps in COVID-19 testing.

Why is this research important?

The new tests will be cost-effective, fast, and easy to mass-produce, which will allow them to be used at home, in schools, in under-resourced communities, and anywhere else COVID-19 tests are hard to get. And the easier it is to test for COVID-19, the easier it will be to stop the spread.

Where can I go to learn more?

Symptoms of COVID-19

  • Information about the most common symptoms of COVID-19.

Can a Loss of Taste and Smell Be a Symptom of COVID-19?

  • How COVID-19 can affect our sense of smell and taste.

Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx)

  • How the RADx initiative is advancing COVID-19 research.

Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics Radical (RADx-rad)

  • The NIH is supporting novel approaches to addressing gaps in COVID-19 research, including new testing methods and new approaches to make testing more accurate, affordable, and usable.

Sources

National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD). (2021, February 4). NIDCD grantees to develop new smell and taste tests to screen for COVID-19 and possible future viral diseases. Retrieved April 23, 2021, from https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/news/2021/nidcd-grantees-develop-new-smell-taste-tests-screen-covid-19-possible-future-viral

Dalton, P. H., and Parma, V. (2020). SCENTinel: A rapid smell test for COVID-19 surveillance. NIH RePORTER. Retrieved May 18, 2021, from https://reporter.nih.gov/search/gtJQTiQtZUKyX-8FjHIOUw/project-details/10264616

Munger, S. D., Gerkin, R. C., and Hayes, J. E. (2020). Rapid olfactory tools for telemedicine-friendly COVID-19 screening and surveillance. NIH RePORTER. Retrieved May 18, 2021, from https://reporter.nih.gov/search/An0jRrZUjU6WAIoy4A3yvQ/project-details/10263657

Tatar, D. J. (2020). Longitudinal at home smell testing to detect infection by SARS-CoV-2. NIH RePORTER. Retrieved May 18, 2021, from https://reporter.nih.gov/search/ZBs-ViAJp0ygCaHD-1A5bg/project-details/10264619

Travers, S. P. (2020). A confectionary-based screening tool for assessing chemosensory loss in COVID-19 patients. NIH RePORTER. Retrieved May 18, 2021, from https://reporter.nih.gov/search/6GOZAp-Jmki2LS4kiGWGJQ/project-details/10264611

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