Modeling the effectiveness of olfactory testing to limit SARS-CoV-2 transmission.


A central problem in the COVID-19 pandemic is that there is not enough testing to prevent infectious spread of SARS-CoV-2, causing surges and lockdowns with human and economic toll. Molecular tests that detect viral RNAs or antigens will be unable to rise to this challenge unless testing capacity increases by at least an order of magnitude while decreasing turnaround times. Here, we evaluate an alternative strategy based on the monitoring of olfactory dysfunction, a symptom identified in 76-83% of SARS-CoV-2 infections-including those with no other symptoms-when a standardized olfaction test is used. We model how screening for olfactory dysfunction, with reflexive molecular tests, could be beneficial in reducing community spread of SARS-CoV-2 by varying testing frequency and the prevalence, duration, and onset time of olfactory dysfunction. We find that monitoring olfactory dysfunction could reduce spread via regular screening, and could reduce risk when used at point-of-entry for single-day events. In light of these estimated impacts, and because olfactory tests can be mass produced at low cost and self-administered, we suggest that screening for olfactory dysfunction could be a high impact and cost-effective method for broad COVID-19 screening and surveillance.

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