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What Can Covid-19 Teach Us About the Mysteries of Smell?

The New York Times – “…We think that smell is less important to us than our other senses only because we’re fooling ourselves, Sobel told me. After all, you wouldn’t eat a beautiful cake if it smelled like sewage, but you would probably try some ugly gloop that smelled like cinnamon. Covid, he hypothesized, could kick off a sort of global reckoning, forcing our conscious minds to recognize what our brains have known all along. “People are unaware smell is important until they lose it,” he said. “And then they’re terrified.” The growing mess of emails that followed Hopkins’s alert in March quickly became so unwieldy that the scientists decided to move to a more formalized group. Within days, it had 500 members, from dozens of countries, and a name: the Global Consortium for Chemosensory Research. (The group eventually stabilized at around 630 members, from 64 countries.) “We decided to become a global organization,” explained Valentina Parma, a psychologist who, along with Reed and seven others, helped found the G.C.C.R.’s leadership committee. “We all got together to try to figure out what’s going on….

In a matter of weeks, 40,000 people took the survey, and the members of the G.C.C.R. began to search for patterns in the data. They quickly established that people who lost smell and tested positive for the coronavirus weren’t encountering the typical nasal blockage — they often referred to the loss as “sudden” and “creepy” — and that they were also noticing genuine impairments not just to their olfaction but in many cases to their taste and trigeminal sensations as well. This clearly wasn’t the typical pathology of smell loss following a virus. The scientists also noticed that a disconnect was forming between what the data showed and how the wider world responded. Early on, data from apps for tracking symptoms showed that smell loss was more common than the fever or cough the virus was known for; it also had the diagnostic advantage of pointing directly to Covid, rather than to another respiratory illness. And yet schools and restaurants and airports continued to use forehead thermometers to screen for fevers — a symptom that many people with Covid never experienced. Later G.C.C.R. analysis showed that smell loss was, in fact, the most reliable predictor of Covid, and that this was true even for people assessing their own smell loss (which, research has shown, is something people tend to be quite bad at). Reed and other researchers also found that objective smell tests, in which patients have to prove themselves against actual stimuli, were able to catch many extra Covid cases among people who failed to realize when their sense of smell had changed. “The better we ask questions about smell,” Parma says, “the more people we find.”..

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