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Losing taste and smell less common in more recent COVID variants, VCU Health reports

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Then-Gov. Ralph Northam received a Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine in March 2021. In September 2020, the governor said he and his wife had tested positive for the virus. He has said the virus cost him his sense of smell.

Loss of taste and smell is a distinctive and perplexing symptom of COVID-19, and it can persist for months or years. Eight months after then-Gov. Ralph Northam was diagnosed, he said he had still not regained those senses.

But the loss of taste and smell has diminished as the virus has mutated, according to a new report from Virginia Commonwealth University Health.

“As the pandemic continues and new variants emerge, this is very good news for patients,” said Dr. Daniel Coelho, an ear, nose and throat specialist at the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU and the study’s lead author.

It’s estimated that millions of Americans have dealt with long COVID, including symptoms of cognitive impairment known as “brain fog,” ringing in the ears, light sensitivity and feeling fatigue or shortness of breath. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said there are between 5 million and 30 million Americans with these symptoms. Kaine said he has dealt with persistent nerve tingling since his diagnosis two years ago.

In the pandemic’s first wave, between 85-88% of COVID patients reported losing taste or smell for some period. That number fell to 50% during the alpha variant, which peaked in Virginia in January 2021, 44% during the delta variant and 17% during omicron. It’s unclear if the average recovery time changed for each variant.

If a person loses taste and smell, that’s still a good indicator of a COVID infection, Coelho said.

But the reverse is no longer true.

“Do not think you are COVID-negative just because your sense of smell and taste is normal,” Celho added.

It’s still unclear why COVID can affect a patient’s taste and smell, but analyzing the molecular structure of each variant could provide clues.

“Unlocking what causes smell and taste loss in the first place will help us better determine how to treat it,” Coelho said.

VCU researchers analyzed 3.5 million cases from a National Institutes of Health database.

Coelho and Richard Costanzo, research director at VCU Health’s Smell and Taste Disorders Center, are working to develop an implant to restore taste and smell, similar to how a cochlear implant brings back sound for people with hearing loss. Their work started before the pandemic.

Losing taste and smell can contribute to a lower quality of life. Half of people who lose those senses report feelings of depression. Loss of smell is associated with a higher rate of dementia.

(804) 649-6109

Twitter: @EricKolenich



Eric Kolenich writes about higher education, health systems and more for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He joined the newspaper in 2009 and spent 11 years in the Sports section. (804) 649-6109

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