The cocktail party kicked off at 4:30pm on a Saturday in late March, an event held over Zoom and featuring three women, all academics, including two Canadians, bound by friendship and a shared professional interest in the chemical senses, that is, taste (gustation) and smell (olfaction).
Dana Small, a Victoria, B.C. native now at Yale, with a dual professorship in psychology and psychiatry, was engaged in ground-breaking research on the “gut,” and how the modern food environment plays tricks on our system before the pandemic hit. She opted for red wine, as did Theresa White, another foodie/sensory psychology expert at Le Moyne College in upstate New York, while Rachel Herz, the other Canadian, and an adjunct professor at Brown University in Providence, R.I., chose white.
Around the time of the party, reports were starting to surface about a percentage of COVID-19 patients who experienced a profound loss of smell, an aspect of the rapidly advancing global virus the three professors took as a sign, perhaps, that their expertise in all-things olfactory might come in handy.
“I said, ‘We need to come up with a test,’ Small says. “So we started brainstorming.”
Identifying asymptomatic carriers is absolutely critical
What makes COVID-19 especially deadly isn’t the fact that it hangs around on surfaces for a spell, but its prolific transmission rates. It is a 21st century virus that gets around, and a good chunk of its carriers are asymptomatic, meaning they don’t experience a fever, cough – or have difficulty breathing — and instead float through life blissfully oblivious to the risk they pose to others.
“Identifying asymptomatic carriers is absolutely critical in stopping the progression of the pandemic, I believe,” Small says. “So if there is odour loss with some — even if it’s only a small percentage of people — identifying them as carriers would be significant.”
Losing one’s sense of smell isn’t like losing one’s car keys. When the keys go missing, you recognize the loss in an instant. But a person’s sense of smell can slip away quietly, over a period of time, without the person noticing it is going, going, going, until it is effectively gone.
Small and her pals agreed that a simple do-it-at-home sniff test, using common household items, would allow participants — the great mass of us — to start tracking their sense of smell. In this way, an asymptomatic carrier who feels like a million bucks, but notes a diminishing sense of smell one day to the next, could consider quarantining, ASAP, instead of carrying on until their olfactory sense disappears altogether.
Hence, says Small, the birth of the peanut butter sniff test. Peanut butter, so good on toast, and always a friend to jam, is a North American staple that stimulates the olfactory sense exclusively, unlike, say, ground coffee — a treat to inhale, no doubt — but a fragrance that fires both our sense of smell and the trigeminal nerve governing sensations like “pain and tickle,” which influence how one registers an odour.
As a control on the peanut butter, sniff-test participants are asked to breathe in a snout full of vinegar, another household staple, like coffee, that fires the trigeminal nerve. The big idea? If a subject is registering the vinegar, but the scent of the peanut butter is fading away, they can be confident their sense of smell is decreasing.
“If we find there is a trajectory of diminishing smell over days, we would be able to identify asymptomatic carriers, even before they were conscious of losing their smell,” says Small. “And in those, let’s say, five days, there could otherwise be lots of transmissions.”
The 48-year-old professor, whose favourite scents are cedar forest, patchouli and Vancouver Island campfire, has been circulating the test around Yale and Brown and sending it to family members in B.C. The online survey takes about 30 seconds to complete. It is as easy as smelling an open jar of peanut butter. What is maddening, however, is that because of the sluggishness of the academic grant application process, Small won’t get funding for the test before September.
In other words: a highly regarded academic, who trained at McGill University, and whose star was born 20 years ago after a study involving chocolate and the brain, has a home test ready to go that could save lives, but won’t be saving anybody at least until the fall.
“It is incredibly frustrating,” Small says. “There is a great opportunity here to develop something that could potentially be important — not only for this virus — but for other ones as well.”
Small has been venting her frustrations to friends, family and colleagues for weeks. She adds if there are any philanthropists or other financial high-fliers out there, looking to underwrite a study, and do some good, she would be happy to take their call. Today.
Meantime, she has a grant application to complete, and an unfunded study to circulate that includes herself as a participant. The professor sniffs her peanut butter (crunchy style) at 8:30 am daily. When the urge strikes, she will allow herself to enjoy some of the test material, spread atop a slice of German black bread, with a morning coffee on the side.
LONDON, ONT. — The unemployment rate in London increased dramatically in May, according to Statistics Canada.
London’s jobless rate climbed to 11.7 per cent in May, compared to 8.9 per cent in April.
It’s the lowest number of people working in London since 2003, when there were over 80,000 fewer people living in the area.
Based on a three-month rolling average, London-St. Thomas has lost 28,400 people from its labour force – and that’s just since February.
That figure includes Shannon Rumble, “Since the beginning when everything shut down, I haven’t been to work at all.”
Temporarily laid off from her job as a line cook, federal CERB payments are helping, but Rumble needs things to get back to normal soon.
“I’m a single mom, so (my daughter) can’t go to day care. My parents are helping out, but I can’t go to work if she can’t go to school or day care,” she explains.
“Its not just numbers, it’s people,” London Mayor Ed Holder isn’t sugar coating the situation, “It impacts people on a very personal level and if you are trying to make a mortgage (payment), or make sure your kids are alright, I get that.”
From the perspective of businesses, Holder says large employers who are part of his COVID-19 economic task force are balancing an urgent desire to get staff back to work, with the need to keep them safe from COVID-19.
“We will be doing business, we may just be doing it differently,” he says.
Holder predicts a moderate, consistent comeback as businesses reopen, “I am optimistic that, while I don’t think it’s a quick recovery, I think it will be steady.”
On a national level, Statistics Canada reported a record high unemployment rate even as the economy added 289,600 jobs in May, with businesses reopening amid easing public health restrictions.
The national unemployment rate rose to 13.7 per cent, topping the previous high of 13.1 per cent set in December 1982.
The increase in the unemployment rate came as more people started looking for work.
The increase in the number of jobs come after three million were lost over March and April.
The average estimate from economists is for the loss of 500,000 jobs in May and for the unemployment rate to rise to 15.0 per cent, according to financial markets data firm Refinitiv.
– With files from CTV’s Melanie Borrelli and The Canadian Press.
Getting mortgage default insurance is about to get harder after Canada’s federal housing agency announced stricter lending standards on Thursday.
The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. (CMHC) says it will no longer allow homebuyers to use borrowed funds for their down payment, will require a higher credit score from at least one borrower and will lower the threshold for how much debt applicants can carry compared to their income.
The changes, which come into effect July 1, will reduce the purchasing power of homebuyers who opt for CMHC insurance and likely leave insured mortgage applicants in pricey markets with fewer options, according to mortgage brokers.
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0:50 Should you buy a house during the coronavirus crisis?
Should you buy a house during the coronavirus crisis?
CMHC’s new debt-ratio policy will lower homebuyers’ purchasing power by up to 11 per cent, according to Robert McLister, founder of rates comparisons site RateSpy.com.
For example, someone making $60,000 a year with a five per cent down payment and no pre-existing debt would be able to afford a home with a maximum home price that is roughly 11 per cent lower than what they would have been able to buy before the new rules, according to McLister’s calculations.
Economists say the measures could discourage some prospective homebuyers from entering the market.
CMHC said it will require a credit score of at least 680, up from the current minimum of 600. It will also lower the maximum amount of debt applicants are allowed to carry compared to their income.
To measure the latter, lenders use two key metrics: the gross debt service ratio (GDS), or the share of income used to cover the mortgage and other housing costs like property taxes, and the total debt service ratio (TDS), the share of income used to cover housing costs plus the cost of servicing other debts.
CMHC is lowering the maximum GDS from 39 per cent to 35 per cent and the maximum TDS from 44 per cent to 42 per cent.
3:27 Open House: Pros and cons of reverse mortgages
Open House: Pros and cons of reverse mortgages
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Changes to the GDS threshold and the credit score minimum will have the greatest impact on affordability, said James Laird, co-founder of financial products comparisons site Ratehub.ca and president of mortgage brokerage CanWise Financial, in a statement via email.
Banning the use of borrowed funds to finance down payments will likely have a more marginal effect, as most Canadians rely on savings, investments and financial help from family for down payments, Laird added.
Mortgage insurance, which protects lenders from the risk of borrowers defaulting on their payments, is mandatory in Canada for loans with a down payment of less than 20 per cent.
Mortgage default insurance is available from CMHC as well as private companies such as Genworth MI Canada Inc. and Canada Guaranty Mortgage Insurance Co.
While the new CMHC rules do not apply to Canada’s private mortgage insurers, they could adopt the new policy on a voluntary basis.
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Private mortgage insurance providers could become “the only games left in town” for homebuyers in expensive markets like Toronto and Vancouver, where borrowers generally have higher debt ratios, McLister noted.
McLister is critical of CMHC’s decision to tighten the rules at a time when the economy is already reeling from the impact of the COVID-19 public health restrictions.
“Normally, you don’t rock the boat when you’re already taking on water,” McLister wrote in a blog post shortly after the policy announcement. “But that’s what CMHC has done,” he added.
Canada’s housing agency has said it’s concerned that already high household debt levels will soar in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis, increasing the risk that overstretched homeowners won’t be able to keep up with their mortgage payments.
The new rules “will protect homebuyers, reduce government and taxpayer risk and support the stability of housing markets while curtailing excessive demand and unsustainable house price growth,” said CMHC head Evan Siddall in a statement.
U.S. West Texas Intermediate crude oil futures are trading at their highest levels of the week on Friday and inside the price gap created on March 9 when the market opened sharply lower, officially starting the coronavirus-related plunge. The price action strongly suggests the buying is getting stronger especially if traders fill the gap.
The market was initially supported after a report said OPEC and its allies led by Russia would meet on Saturday to discuss extending record oil production cuts and to approve a new approach that aims to force laggards such as Iraq and Nigeria to comply better with the existing curbs.
A second surge in the market occurred following the release of a much better-than-expected U.S. Non-Farm Payrolls report. This surprisingly strong report is a sign that the economy is improving much faster than previously expected, meaning that demand will pick up at a much faster pace than currently estimated.
OPEC+ Wants an Extension and Better Compliance
Saturday’s meetings would start with talks between members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and be followed by a gathering of the OPEC+ group, an OPEC+ source said, after Algerian and Russian media reported the meetings, Reuters reported.
Two OPEC+ sources said Saudi Arabia and Russia had agreed to extend the deeper cuts until the end of July but they said Riyadh was also pushing to extend them until the end of August.
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