Research by TU faculty could aid fight against COVID-19

By Cody Boteler on August 4, 2020

International survey could help with test distribution for novel coronavirus

Vonnie Shields
Vonnie Shields in her lab at Towson University.

Towson University’s Vonnie Shields, Ph.D has contributed to an international survey of COVID-19 patients, the findings of which could help prioritize the limited supply of testing materials for the disease.

Her work has included daily communications with members of the newly formed Global Consortium for Chemosensory Research, analyzing the data collected from the survey and contributing to the writing of the group’s first publication.

In a significant finding, the survey results indicate these losses are not associated with nasal blockage, which may prove to be an important way to distinguish COVID-19 from other infections, like a cold or the flu. Shields says she was surprised by those findings.

“The results may give doctors more confidence in recommending telehealth patients for in-person testing while physical distancing remains in place,” she says.

Shields, associate dean of the Fisher College of Science & Mathematics, is particularly interested in the link between sense of smell and COVID-19.

“The results may give doctors more confidence in recommending telehealth patients for in-person testing while physical distancing remains in place,” Shields says. ”

Vonnie Shields

The initial survey results from over 4,000 respondents in more than 40 countries indicate that the senses of smell and taste and chemesthetic sensations—sensitivity to chemicals like those in chili peppers—are significantly reduced in patients diagnosed with COVID-19.

In late July, the Global Consortium for Chemosensory Research submitted a second paper to be published. The pre-print version, which is available online, proposes a scaled test to screen for recent smell loss, which could be used to indicate "high odds of symptomatic COVID-19, especially when viral lab tests are impractical or unavailable."

Shields normally studies neural systems in the brain using anatomical, behavioral and electrophysiological methods, conducting innovative research on the biological mechanism involved in smell and taste.

“I have been a chemosensory researcher for more than 20 years and have an interest in how our sense of smell and taste become altered as a result of viral or other health challenges,” she says.

The survey was launched by researchers in the Global Consortium for Chemosensory Research on April 7 and gathered initial results on April 18.

The team is still collecting results and encourages anyone who has experienced any respiratory illness, including COVID-19, to take the survey, Shields says.

This story is one of several related to President Kim Schatzel’s priorities for Towson University: TU Matters to Maryland and BTU-Partnerships at Work for Greater Baltimore.