Online smell, taste challenge helps detect COVID-19

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Photo Courtesy of M. Yanina Pepino

Professor M. Yanina Pepino poses for a headshot. Pepino is a member serving on the Global Consortium for Chemosensory Research leadership committee whose website has a taste and smell challenge to help detect COVID-19.

By Alexandra Gergova, Staff Writer

In an effort to assist with COVID-19 detection, the Global Consortium for Chemosensory Research recently released a digital taste and smell challenge that allows participants from all over the globe to monitor variations in sensory abilities related to olfaction and gustation. 

While a sudden loss of taste or smell currently serves as the best indicator of a COVID-19 infection, the purpose of the website is not limited solely to detecting the early stages of COVID-19, according to M. Yanina Pepino, professor in ACES and one of 11 members serving on the GCCR leadership committee. Although it is primarily used to assist with early detection, the website also acts as a tool to heighten general awareness of the importance of the two most neglected senses: Taste and smell. 

“In this brief taste and smell (challenge), we are targeting everybody,” Pepino said. “So you could be in the healthy population. It can be people with disorders that were before COVID or people that are undergoing a cold or flu — anybody can participate, not just people who are undergoing a respiratory illness or COVID in particular. And this survey, a very brief survey, was designed also to increase the awareness of our sense of taste and smell and create a habit of paying attention to these senses.”

When accessing the website for the first time, individuals will be provided with brief background information and instructions before being prompted to indicate whether they have received a positive COVID-19 diagnosis or experienced symptoms from an attached list.

Participants, after selecting a beverage, will be asked to rate its sweetness, sourness and bitterness. After successful completion of the brief questionnaire, participants will receive a visual graph that monitors and depicts fluctuations each day the survey is completed. 

“The idea is that by doing these repetitively and with the same beverage, you can self-monitor,” Pepino said. “But also you get into this habit of paying attention because we always take it for granted. We are busy when we are drinking something or eating. Many times, we don’t pay attention to what we are doing. We are just reading a book, watching TV or listening to some music. Now we really want you to take the time to pay attention because we are asking you to rate something.”

Because the University has a successful and effective COVID-19 testing program, Pepino hopes that this challenge can complement the already existing program. 

“I feel that we as a community, since we are so lucky that we are being tested so frequently, can provide really good quality data for control groups,” Pepino said. “I feel that testing, getting some signaling and knowing what happened with the sense of smell can complement and help for public health use or for better understanding some of the effects of COVID on the sense of smell.”

The project, which was initiated in late November and released on Jan. 5, is the work of hundreds of scientists within the GCCR as well as patients who tested the website prior to its release to ensure it was comprehensible, according to Kathrin Ohla, a psychologist serving on the leadership committee and one of nine founders of the GCCR. The GCCR is a global group of roughly 640 scientists in 63 countries who joined together in response to anecdotal reports documenting the loss of taste and smell associated with COVID-19. 

“The Consortium is really growing and it has brought us three different international or global studies also out to investigate smell and taste with relation to COVID-19 but also other respiratory illnesses,” Ohla said. “And more recently, we’ve also been moving forward in more generally raising awareness for taste and smell disturbances.”

Because the GCCR is an interdisciplinary group spanning a multitude of countries, the taste and smell challenge targets individuals over 18 years of age in dozens of locations around the globe. Currently, the website has been translated into over 15 languages to ensure global accessibility and has been completed by a little over 1,000 individuals. 

“Some of them have already repeated the test since the very beginning since it came out and others just joined,” Ohla said. “We are translating as quick as we can, but each week a new language is coming so we expect many more people to participate.”

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has caused extreme difficulties, Pepino believes that one positive has come from this virus and its impact: the recent emphasis on the senses of taste and smell. 

“The senses of smell and taste have been neglected for the whole of the history of humankind,” Pepino said. “They have been neglected and called the minor senses, but they are so important for quality of life. I feel like now people that have this smell and taste dysfunction for the first time at least are going to get more attention from their doctors, from science and from moving the science forward. So I hope that this is a new way to better understand the senses.”

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