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Wake up and smell the coffee – if you can’t, better get a Covid-19 test


On Monday, 18 May, the UK finally joined the US, Europe and the World Health Organization by including loss of smell or taste as an officially recognised symptom of Covid-19. This means that those calling NHS 111 with sudden loss of smell will now be told they are likely to have Covid-19, are eligible for a test, and should self-isolate.

Student drinking her cuppacino

For eight weeks, the UK branch of the Global Consortium for Chemosensory Research (GCCR) and ENT-UK, the professional association of ear, nose and throat surgeons, have been calling for anosmia (complete loss of smell) to be recognised as a marker for asymptomatic carriers of the virus. As early as 20 March, a joint statement from the British Rhinology Society (BRS) and ENT-UK, called for loss of smell to be treated as a marker for carriers of the virus. 

Professor Claire Hopkins, BRS president, issued a statement on behalf of the BRS and ENTUK. In it she says: “We are delighted that…patients with new onset anosmia should be advised to self-isolate in order to reduce the risk of transmission, and we are hopeful that all members of the public developing anosmia will be able to access testing. We estimate that many hundreds of thousands of patients in the UK have developed anosmia as a result of Covid-19.”

In order to discover more, researchers from the University of London’s School of Advanced Study (SAS) together with colleagues from the GCCR have produced a survey about change of smell and taste during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Professor Barry Smith, director of the Centre for the Study of the Senses (part of SAS), the UK lead for the GCCR, said: “If enough people are able to tells us about their sudden loss of smell or taste, this will provide vital clues that could be part of the story about the prevalence of the virus in the population – information the Government can call upon before mass antibody testing is available.” (University of London survey).

The UK researchers in GCCR, who are made up of clinicians, sensory scientists and patient advocates, “have contributed at every turn” according to Professor Smith, “by publishing scientific findings, writing letters to leading medical journals, and by informing the public directly through social media, newspaper and online articles, and podcasts.”  

Professor Smith is the Leadership Fellow for the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Science in Council Theme and used to collaborating across disciplines with medics and neuroscientists. “Working with my ENT surgeon colleague, Dr Katherine Whitcroft, we have been piecing together the evidence and designing a survey to capture new data. It has been an enormous collaborative effort bringing together the scientific and medical evidence together with testimonies from patient groups,” he said.

“We have been working closely with the charities, AbScent and Fifth Sense. Both charities have helped people who have suffered a loss of smell or taste.” 
AbScent and Fifth Sense provide an invaluable service both to patients and members of the public who have undergone smell loss. Their websites provide vital information. 

The UK GCCR team are keen to encourage further work into olfaction, uniting the interests of ENT practitioners, sensory scientists and the many patients who have already contributed so much to understanding the link between Covid-19 and loss of smell. And Professor Smith and Dr Whitcroft are pleased that there is a fresh push on the University of London survey. (Initial findings from the GCCR study can be found here).

“It is now time to find out how many people have or had Covid-19 so that we can take the right steps as the lockdown is eased. Knowledge about who has experienced sudden loss of smell will be vital in this task.”

To contribute further, researchers are asking as many people as possible to take part in the UK-led Smell and Change Loss Survey. 

For further information, please contact Professor Barry Smith.