The fast-moving COVID-19 pandemic has seen the international scientific community rallying to detect, understand and combat this global threat.

One of the key challenges diagnosing new cases, and controlling the spread, relates to the delayed onset of clinical symptoms – people often have the virus, but show no signs of being ill.

In recent days, it has emerged that many COVID-19 patients may initially experience a sudden loss of taste and smell. This could potentially be a key early-warning of their infection.

A new, international research consortium has been hastily formed to research and understand how COVID-19 affects smell and taste function. An immediate goal of this global project is to develop self-screening assessments of smell and taste ability to help people detect early signs of COVID-19 infection.

Dr Mei Peng, a sensory scientist at the University of Otago’s Department of Food Science, is a member of the international team, and is aiming to provide data and insights from New Zealand’s growing number of COVID-19 cases. Dr Peng is now looking for individuals who have either been infected with COVID-19, or believe they might have been exposed to it.

“We’re aiming to collect data worldwide using a standard approach, so that the data can be assessed and compared against region and time. I will be contributing to this project by gathering and analysing data from New Zealand,” Dr Peng says.

New Zealanders that would like to participate are urged to email Dr Peng immediately. Participants would be required to fill a short online questionnaire about their smell and taste senses over a few days.

“This is a simple test, but from the huge pool of global data we will look for consistencies of infected people’s experiences, which could potentially help others identify if they have the virus, and enable isolating measures to be put in place sooner to limit their chances of infecting others,” Dr Peng says.

The initiative was started by a few researchers at the Monell Centre, University of Pennsylvania, and Neuroscience and Society Lab in the USA. Within a week, 273 researchers from more than 20 countries have joined the consortium. They are currently finalising the research questionnaire and hope to distribute this to the public within the next 2 weeks.

“This epidemic is affecting us all, and it’s crucial that we all help in any way we can,” says Dr Peng.

People interested in participating can email Dr Peng on mei.peng@otago.ac.nz

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