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January 02, 2021

Penn State researchers develop at-home 'smell tests' to detect COVID-19 cases

They worked with the University of Florida and Arizona State University to develop the tests

Illness COVID-19
penn-state-scratch-sniff-test-COVID.original.jpg Dana Tentis/Pixabay

Researchers out of Penn State, the University of Florida and Arizona State University are working to develop a scratch-and-sniff test to detect COVID-19 outbreaks.

Loss of smell is one of the more unique and jarring symptoms of COVID-19. 

Researchers out of Penn State, the University of Florida and Arizona State University are working to use that to their advantage and  develop a self-administered scratch-and-sniff smell test to detect COVID-19, according to a press release from Penn State.

The team created two different smell tests and will analyze which one is more effective in predicting a positive COVID-19 diagnosis. The team hopes to develop an inexpensive, at-home test that can be used as a "warning sign of a community outbreak in time to thwart it," according to the release.

The first test asks the user to identify odors such as smoke, strawberry, chocolate and onions, while the second works to reveal the users sensitivity to different concentrations of the same odor. 

While loss of smell isn't present in all positive cases, studies show that 50% to 70% of people with coronavirus experience smell loss.

"One thing that's become very apparent with COVID-19 is that there's no single symptom that is universal for everyone who has the disease, but one of the most common is smell loss, especially early, sudden smell loss," Steven Munger, director of the University of Florida's Center for Smell and Taste 

The inexpensive test offers a way for widespread testing of asymptomatic individuals. While it cannot detect those without symptoms, it can be useful to identify community spread.

If, for instance, a dormitory utilized the tests and saw an increase in students losing their sense of smell, it could be an early sign of an outbreak and extra precautions can be taken.

“Identifying where COVID-19 outbreaks are occurring, in real time, is essential for authorities to make public health decisions and for private actors to develop targeted safety strategies,” said Cara Exten, assistant professor of nursing at Penn State, said. “For example, until local outbreaks can be identified rapidly, many teachers and parents may not feel safe bringing children into a school environment, many businesses may not be able to safely re-open, and individuals will be unable to gauge the personal risks associated with travel or simply going to work.”

Down the line, the team could seek approval from the Food and Drug Administration to use their smell test to formally diagnose COVID-19, according to Penn State.

The National Institutes of Health awarded the team of researchers $912,000 to create these tests. The development of these tests is a part of a two-year project funded by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act and the NIH's RADx-rad program. 

Their project included participants who are COVID-positive and COVID-negative from diverse backgrounds across the country near the participating schools. Participants will be asked to use the two tests to determine which test is more effective in predicting COVID-19.

"In 2020 alone, COVID-19 cost a million lives worldwide," John Hayes, Penn State professor and principal investigator of the study, said. "It is critical that we develop new tools that can mitigate the spread of the deadly SARS-CoV-2 virus."

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