IFF teams up with medics to explore ‘smell test’ potential in early COVID-19 detection

By Elaine Watson contact

- Last updated on GMT

 Peel and smell... '‘We see this as an early detection system that could go national or even global’ (picture credit: IFF)
Peel and smell... '‘We see this as an early detection system that could go national or even global’ (picture credit: IFF)

Related tags: COVID-19, Iff

Self-administered ‘smell tests’ supported by a digital health app could serve as an COVID-19 early detection system, especially for asymptomatic carriers that may be spreading the virus without knowing it, say researchers at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital.

As anecdotal evidence began to emerge suggesting the loss of sense of smell and taste* might be early symptoms of COVID-19, flavors & fragrances giant IFF teamed up with researchers at the above institutions to give ‘peel and smell’ cards** in English and Spanish to 1,500+ people at COVID-19 drive-thru testing sites, first responders, and patients in respiratory clinics at local hospitals in Boston.

‘Around 70% of people that were infected with COVID-19 reported losing their sense of smell’

The cards invited participants to identify common smells such as smoke and roses, and then distinguish between different odors from IFF, guided by a simple app (click HERE​).

Researchers then looked at those who ‘failed’ the smell test and​ tested positive for COVID-19 and found a high correlation, although more tests will be needed to validate this and come up with a more accurate percentage figure, said Dr. Gregory Yep, chief scientific and sustainability officer at IFF.

“We know that around 70% of people that were infected with COVID-19 – symptomatic or asymptomatic - reported losing their sense of smell and about 50% reported the loss of taste, and these are general numbers we’re also seeing in our study from the first 1,500+ or so tests, but we’ve got another 1,500 going out so we can validate those numbers.”

‘We see this as an early detection system that could go national or even global’

The next step will be to send out tests to large numbers of asymptomatic people, who could be ‘super spreaders,’ said Yep.

We see this as an early detection system that could go national or even global,"​ he said. However, he clarified, failing the smell test doesn’t prove you have COVID-19. It just suggests you might want to get tested. He also noted that loss of sense of smell can indicate many other things as well, from a stuffed nose unrelated to COVID-19 or a concussion.

“It’s an early warning system, that maybe you should get tested, and maybe you shouldn’t come into work until you can get a test, for example. Our goal is to test across the country and flatten the curve by identifying people who may have COVID-19 at an early stage.

“Initially the medical community largely ignored this correlation ​[between loss of sense of smell and COVID-19] but now they are recognizing its importance.

“What’s interesting is that people that notice this loss of sense of smell may also have better immunity compared with people that get COVID-19 and never lose their sense of smell, so if you lose your sense of smell, maybe you have a pretty decent immune system to help you fight this.”

Dr Gregory Yep IFF
Dr Gregory Yep, IFF: The objective test of smell function coupled with tracking of symptoms can be self-administered by participants on smart phones or laptops (picture credit: IFF)

Study lead: ‘We may be able to slow the spread of the disease in the future’

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​,” said Dr. Mark Albers, an MGH neurologist specializing in memory and olfactory disorders and the principal investigator of the study.

“If we can provide reliable self-administered tests to people and health care workers 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.”

* Researchers at Harvard Medical School speculate that the loss of smell may be a result of some kind of inflammation in the nasal cavity, said IFF’s Dr Yep.

**The smell study is being created in collaboration with IFF, which donated the scents from its Living Technology collection. MFR Samplings in Argentina provided support with cards for the pilot study, while US-based Arcade Beauty contributed odor labels. Boston-based app developer ADK Group assisted in getting the first prototype of the app running for the pilot phase.

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