It started in late 2021 with some tongue-in-cheek tweets about bad Amazon reviews for Yankee Candles.
Could they be a canary in the coal mine for a COVID surge to come?
Northeastern University Assistant Professor and Researcher Nick Beauchamp was curious.
He'd been looking at social media impacting COVID data. His following hypothesis included the COVID symptom of anosmia, aka loss of smell.
"I downloaded a bunch of review data, counted up the references to no smell or no scent, and sort of shared a plot of that curve, which indeed matches the COVID curve," Beauchamp said.
He then looked beyond candles, adding perfume reviews to the data and eventually publishing his findings.
"I try, in the project, to sort of check to see whether it holds for perfume. Yeah, it does hold for perfume ... Does it hold for flu? No, it doesn't hold for flu. Does it work even when you control for the sort of seasonality of both COVID and candle purchases and complaints? Yes, it seems to survive that," Beauchamp continued.
In his 2021 results, COVID cases predicted negative reviews, but negative reviews did not predict cases.
"It's possible, or plausible, that the rise in complaints was actually due to COVID-19, you know, with all the usual caveats, but that the reviews themselves were not super good at giving us a heads up on when cases were rising," Beauchamp said.
He ran the numbers again June 2022 and found bad reviews went out, and then cases went up.
Beauchamp has visited the numbers again this month. He says so far, in October, the bad reviews have been on the rise for the past two months, and cases have stayed flat or declined over the same period.
Important to note: Case tracking has been impacted by factors like at-home testing. The CDC has also moved from daily case and death counts to weekly ones.
Health experts are predicting a modest fall and winter wave, going off current case increases in Europe.
Meanwhile, Beauchamp says the candle data is just interesting and funny, nothing more. But the research has impacted how his family thinks about health.
"We haven't taken to sniffing candles to test ourselves, but, you know, we are fairly cautious—and I think, probably because I spend time working on this—more cautious than the average household," he said.
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