Can loss of smell and taste help screen for COVID-19?


The Government of Ontario has announced a $20-million investment for COVID-19 research. While it is important to develop vaccines and treatment, I would like to advocate for potentially an equally important process to protect the vulnerable population – namely, prevention and screening.

COVID-19 is a mysterious disease with high rate of transmission even among individuals with virtually no symptoms. While we are using a myriad of symptoms to screen for those who need to be tested, we still do not have good population data on which symptoms can be specific for COVID-19. Recent news articles and studies from around the world have suggested that loss of smell and taste may be specific and early symptoms for COVID-19. In fact, sometimes rapid onset loss of smell is the only symptom in these individuals. A recent US study has suggested that COVID-19 patients may be at 10 times the risk of having loss of smell. However, these studies are based on small numbers and are not population-based data. 

In Ontario, a research group led by Dr. John Lee from the University of Toronto based out of St. Michael’s Hospital is working on this very project. They are currently using surveys to study both smell and taste in patients who have been tested for COVID-19. While the study is currently focused on the COVID-19 assessment site at St. Michaels’ Hospital, they are hoping to expand this study to partner hospitals and in fact to all Ontario residents who have been tested.  I have high hopes for this study as by using such a simple survey, they can quickly obtain meaningful data to help identify whether we can use smell and taste as cardinal symptoms of COVID-19. This may lead to more effective screening in a very inexpensive manner. I sincerely hope that our government can support research such as this led by Dr. Lee as it may greatly improve our ability to screen for COVID-19 both here and around the world. Contact If you are interested in learning more about this study or if your organization, in Ontario, other parts of Canada or other countries wants to participate.