COVID Booster: loneliness, supertasters and safe concerts

Turn up the volume to combat loneliness

As Melbourne goes into another seven days of lockdown, it’s likely that there will be more people feeling lonely and isolated this weekend. A study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin has found that louder sounds could be a good way to deal with loneliness.

The study, involving 12 experiments with over 2000 people from Australia, Singapore, the UK and the USA, found that people who are socially excluded show a preference for higher volume sounds, like music or background noise, and that these sounds can also help mitigate feelings of loneliness.

“Sound reflects physical and social proximity with other people,” says Adam Wang, a researcher at James Cook University and lead author on the study.

“We think it’s because lively and vibrant places tend to be louder than lifeless and barren ones. In addition, people tend to be more verbal around their friends and quieter around strangers, so over time, loud sounds could remind us of lively events, and people who we are closer with.”

Supertasters are more resilient to COVID

“Supertasters” are people with a high number of T2R38 taste receptors in their mouths. Often a genetic trait, these people are very sensitive to bitter flavours and can be picky eaters compared to tasters or non-tasters.

But they might have an advantage against SARS-CoV-2: a study published in JAMA Network Open has found that supertasters were less likely to test positive to COVID-19.

Taco with coriander, which supertasters are often highly sensitive to
Supertasters are often sensitive to the flavour of coriander. Credit: Smith Collection/Gado / Getty Images

The researchers, based in the US, identified 1935 staff and patients at a hospital as either supertasters, tasters or non-tasters based on phenotype testing. These people were monitored from July to September 2020.

Roughly a quarter of the sample were non-tasters, another quarter were supertasters and the remaining half were tasters. Of the 266 people in the study who tested positive to COVID-19, 147 (55%) were non-tasters, 15 (5.6%) were supertasters, and 104 (39.1%) were tasters. Non-tasters were also more likely to be hospitalised once infected.

While the sample size is small and lacks an infection control group (comparing the results to influenza infection, for example), the authors suggest in their paper that supertasters may be more likely to be asymptomatic or uninfected carriers of SARS-CoV-2 because “their innate immune system, including sinonasal mucosal immunity, helps to prevent the systemic infection of the upper respiratory tract by pathogens”.

Infrared light test for SARS-CoV-2

An international team of researchers, led by researchers from Monash University and the Peter Doherty Institute, has proposed a portable test that can detect SARS-CoV-2 from saliva using light.

Infrared light is commonly used to identify molecules and substances quickly. Since this light is absorbed by molecules in different ways, the spectrum generated by shining it through a substance can give scientists some indication of what’s in the substance.

Having previously used a similar technique to detect malaria and hepatitis, the researchers identified an infrared spectrum from an infectious COVID-19 viral agent in saliva. Using this spectrum, they were able to spot 27 out of 29 positive COVID-19 patients they tested. This makes the test less accurate than a PCR test, but much faster.

Damian Purcell, a professor at the Doherty Institute, says speed and convenience are the two major advantages of the test.

“A person can contribute the sample by simply dribbling into a sterile container,” he says.

“The result can be derived in less than five minutes and a rapid result minimises the delay in determining if quarantine is required, therefore minimising the risk of further spread of infection.”

The researchers, who have described their test in Angewandte Chemie, hope to scale their testing up to a larger cohort.

A safe concert during a pandemic?

In December last year, while Barcelona, Spain, was locked down and no more than six people were permitted to meet indoors, a music concert hosted 465 attendees.

The purpose, as described in a paper published in The Lancet, was to see if it was possible to run a large indoor event with low to no COVID transmission. The answer appears to be yes, but only with strict measures in place.

A thousand volunteers aged between 18 and 59, none of whom were COVID-vulnerable or had known contact with a positive case in the previous fortnight, attended an indoor concert venue. They presented for a lateral flow COVID-19 test beforehand, which takes half an hour to produce results.

After testing negative to COVID-19, attendees were randomly assigned to go to the concert, or get sent home. (The Cosmos staff are trying to decide which experimental group would have been weirder to be a part of.) The 465 volunteers in the concert group were given N95 masks, among other restrictions, and allowed to enjoy DJ performances and live music acts for up to five hours.

Eight days later, all volunteers were tested again with a PCR test. No one in the concert group tested positive, while two people in the control group did.

“Our study provides early evidence that indoor music events can take place without raising the risk of SARS-CoV-2 transmission when comprehensive safety measures are in place, but it is important that our findings are considered in light of the situation in Spain at the time – when cases were not high and many restrictions were in place,” says Josep Llibre, lead author on the study and a doctor at the Germans Trias i Pujol University Hospital in Spain.

“As a result, our study does not necessarily mean that all mass events are safe.”

Change in park use during the pandemic

A University of Queensland study has found that during lockdown, some citizens of Brisbane greatly increased their time spent in urban green spaces – but worryingly, others stopped going out.

Violeta Berjedo-Espinola, a PhD candidate at UQ, surveyed 1000 Brisbane residents, asking them about their park use during the March lockdown.

“36 per cent of people increased their use of city green spaces, yet at the same time, 26 per cent reduced it – there was a great deal of flux during this time,” she says.

“If you were already using green spaces frequently, chances are you significantly reduced your use of them – maybe because there were too many people to dodge.”

She believes that people vulnerable to COVID-19 were more likely to reduce their park use and stay indoors. “It was the same story if you were older – you might not have wanted to go to parks as often as you once did, which is concerning because staying isolated at home can have negative health implications.”

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