Watching people place white paper strips on their tongues might lack the drama of Dr. Henry Barham’s surgical procedures — like cutting a hole in someone’s windpipe — but he believes those strips could hold important answers about the coronavirus.

Barham, a rhinologist at Baton Rouge General and Sinus and Nasal Specialists of Louisiana, has pioneered a simple taste test that he believes may help predict how vulnerable a person may be to severe illness from COVID-19. Barham has spent years studying the relationship between taste receptors and sinus problems, and he has started to apply those principles to the virus.

The loss of taste and smell are telltale signs that someone has been infected, medical experts and researchers have learned.

Dr. Henry Barham

Barham also believes that certain taste receptors can tell researchers before someone gets sick about what kind of inherent immunity their bodies may have to any number of infections, including coronavirus.

In a recently published study in the International Forum of Allergy and Rhinology — a peer-reviewed scientific journal — Barham and fellow physicians Dr. Christian Hall and Dr. Mohamed Taha explained how they tested taste receptors in coronavirus patients. They started with a group of 100 people who had tested positive for the virus, and gave each of them a taste test, asking whether paper strips tasted bitter, sweet or like nothing at all.

Of that group, 21 people who were tested either while they were hospitalized with the virus or afterward could not distinguish the tastes of any of the strips. The remaining 79 who could differentiate the tests to varying degrees experienced "mild to moderate" coronavirus symptoms that did not require hospitalization. None of the 100 patients were in a category that Barham classifies as a “super taster” — someone who strongly tastes the differences in each paper strip.

“The data suggests that those super tasters are most likely to be asymptomatic,” he said. That would explain why there weren't any in the group, because every one of the 100 patients not only tested positive for coronavirus but also had symptoms.

The researchers noted in their study that because they did not study patients’ genes, it was unclear whether their patients’ diminished taste buds were innate, or whether they were a side effect of having coronavirus.

But Barham then started a second, larger study that is being peer-reviewed for the same journal, to help answer that question.

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This time, he enrolled 5,000 people who have not had coronavirus. About half were in the “taster” category, meaning they could somewhat differentiate between the strips, about a quarter were those who could not tell any difference and the other quarter were the coveted “super tasters." The study was designed to represent the general population, which Barham expects would break down into the same categories. 

Since then, Barham has tracked his subjects' progress, checking back in for those who have since acquired the coronavirus to see if their symptoms — or lack thereof — corresponded to how they performed on the taste test. Again, he said he’s finding that the “no tasters” are having the most severe coronavirus cases, while the “super tasters” either aren’t getting infected or aren’t realizing they’re infected because they're asymptomatic.

Researchers across Baton Rouge, the nation and the world are all trying to answer some of the same questions about what makes certain patients more likely to have severe cases of COVID-19. Physicians at Our Lady of the Lake in Baton Rouge are also studying whether patients who are at high risk for sepsis are more likely to have debilitating bouts of coronavirus.

A “super taster” himself, Barham sees his test as a valuable tool that public health officials can use as leaders try to balance coronavirus concerns with reopening schools, businesses and other parts of the economy. He also said that knowing how susceptible one is to a severe coronavirus case might help to determine the order in which people should be vaccinated, once a vaccine is ready.

Even “super tasters” should still get vaccinated at some point, Barham said, because the innate immunity their taste receptors hint at could still wear off eventually, especially as they age.

But for now, knowing his own status has helped to give Barham a level of comfort with coronavirus that he didn’t have early on. Ear, nose and throat specialists like himself are generally at high risk for exposure. They perform tracheostomies to help coronavirus patients breathe when they’re coming off ventilators, among other procedures that send potentially infectious respiratory droplets into the air.

He still hasn’t gotten sick.

“I definitely am more lax than I was,” he said. “Especially knowing this information.”

Editor's Note: This story was updated September 22 to include more information about the study published in the International Forum of Allergy and Rhinology.

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