What Can Covid-19 Teach Us About the Mysteries of Smell?

Danielle Reed stopped counting after the 156th email arrived in a single afternoon. It was late March, and her laboratory at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia had abruptly gone into Covid-19 lockdown. For weeks, there had been little to do. Reed, who is famous in her field for helping to discover a new family of receptors that perceive bitter flavors, had spent years studying the way human genetics affect the way we experience smell and taste. It was important but niche science that seemingly had little to do with a dangerous respiratory virus spreading around the globe.

And then one Saturday, she checked her email. Reed watched in amazement as the messages proliferated. It wasn’t how many threads there were, though that was overwhelming, but the way they seemed to grow like Hydras, sprouting in all directions. Recipients copied other people they thought might be interested in the discussion, who added more people, who added still others, across a huge range of countries and disciplines. The cascading emails were all responding to the same rather obscure news alert, meant for ear, nose and throat doctors based in Britain. It was titled: “Loss of smell as marker of Covid-19 infection.”

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