Harvard researchers discover why COVD-19 causes loss of smell

A health worker collects a nasal swab from a man during a random testing for COVID-19 in Itagui Columbia

A health worker collects a nasal swab from a man during a random testing for COVID-19 in Itagui Columbia

Experts from Harvard Medical School in the United States have identified the cell types used for smelling which are most vulnerable to infection by SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. An worldwide team of researchers led by neuroscientists at Harvard Medical School (HMS) recently identified the olfactory cell types that are most vulnerable to infection by SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes Covid-19). This was surprising considering that sensory neurons, which are responsible for detecting and transmitting the sense of smell for the brain, were not discovered to be vulnerable to the disease.

The study included 145 individuals aged between one month and 65 years with mild to moderate COVID-19 who were studied in three groups - children younger than five years, children 5 to 17 years, and adults 18 to 65 years.

COVID-19 patients are 27 times more likely to have smell loss than those without the disease, but are only around 2.2 to 2.6 times more likely to have fever, cough or respiratory difficulty, the experts said.

Adalja added that he was not surprised to see this T cell cross-reactivity in the study participants who had not been exposed to the novel coronavirus, named SARS-CoV-2.

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"I think it's good news, because once the infection clears, olfactory neurons don't appear to need to be replaced or rebuilt from scratch".

They also do not represent patients during acute COVID-19 infection or those who are completely asymptomatic with COVID-19. Therefore, they stated "need for ongoing investigation of the long-term cardiovascular consequences of COVID-19" as it pertains to issues such as heart inflammation.

The study noted: "In Italy, a large proportion of patients with coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) presented with symptoms (71.4 percentage of 31 845 confirmed cases as of June 3, 2020)".

In addition to public health implications, the researchers said the results could help put the focus on this population while targeting immunization efforts when COVID-19 vaccines become available. However, for some time, it was unclear why many Covid-19 patients lost their sense of smell.

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Their data suggest that a temporary loss of function of supporting cells in the olfactory epithelium (tissue in the nasal cavity involved in smell), which indirectly causes changes to olfactory sensory neurons, is what may cause Covid-19-related anosmia.

"We finally have clues that lead us to understand how it is the virus might attack your sense of smell ... which leads us to theories about how it might attack your neurological systems more generally", Datta said.

"Anosmia seems like a curious phenomenon, but it can be devastating for the small fraction of people in whom it's persistent", Datta said.

Analysts at Harvard Medical School say they've found why a few people contaminated with the coronavirus lose their feeling of smell.

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