“We don’t want to falsely reassure people that if they haven’t lost their sense of smell they don’t have COVID, but this is a link we would like to address,” he said.
Royal North Shore’s SMELLY study aims to recruit 100 participants and test their sense of smell using the robust and long-established University of Pennsylvania Smell Identification Test.
“It’s a glorified scratch and sniff test,” Associate Professor Clifton-Bligh said.
Participants will be asked to identify 40 different scents, from lime, dill pickle and licorice to smoke, motor oil and turpentine. “It would be absolutely fascinating if COVID knocked off some, but not all smell,” Professor Clifton-Bligh said.
Wine connoisseur James Tinslay was most perturbed when he took a sip of his Barbera d’Alba to find it had gone off.
“I thought, ‘that’s really weird’,” Mr Tinslay, 67, said. “I bought another bottle, pulled the cork and thought ‘uh-oh’ my palate is gone’. It was fascinating how profoundly it came on. Overnight, it just went.”
Wine connoisseur James Tinslay lost his palate after contracting coronavirus on holiday in the US.Credit:James Brickwood
Mr Tinslay was holidaying with his wife in New Orleans in the US in March at the time, and had cut the trip short when Australia announced tight border restrictions.
By the time he had returned to Sydney, he had a mild fever but no other symptoms. His wife fared worse and was admitted to hospital. Both tested positive for COVID-19.
“She was so sick. Once you are on oxygen and have catheters in your arm your sense of smell is the least of your priorities,” Mr Tinslay said.
It took just over a week for his palate to right itself.
“It’s a good thing it did,” he said as he prepared for a blind wine tasting on Wednesday evening.
Patient-reported loss of smell is unreliable because many people don’t notice it. The only study to test loss of smell is a small Iranian project involving 60 COVID-19 hospital patients that found 98 per cent had a measurable loss of smell and 73 per cent had moderate to severe anosmia.
“Our study will objectively assess loss of smell with people who have tested positive to COVID-19, and compare their results to people without the virus,” Associate Professor Clifton-Bligh said.
The researchers aim to determine whether the University of Pennsylvania smell test can be used to detect COVID-19 patients with a high sensitivity, and if it could be used as a cheap and easy rapid screening test in hospitals and aged care facilities.
Associate Professor Rory Clifton-Bligh, head of Endocrinology at RNS Hospital and lead researcher on the SMELLY study examining the link between loss of smell and COVID-19.
Healthcare workers who may need to be tested regularly could take the test, and if they fail they will undergo the uncomfortable naso-pharyngeal swab, Associate Professor Clifton-Bligh said.
“We have a long way to go before we can recommend a scratch-and-sniff test for COVID, but this is a step on the way to developing that approach,” he said.
A King’s College London study of more than 2.6 million people published in Nature found the loss of smell and taste was higher in symptomatic people who tested positive for COVID-19 (65 per cent) than those who tested negative (21.7 per cent).
Kate Aubusson is Health Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.
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