Can Covid Research Help Solve the Mysteries of Other Viruses?

The coronavirus may help scientists understand why some people with common viral infections develop severe complications, like heart damage or blood clots.

By Gina Kolata

Barie Carmichael lost her sense of taste and smell while traveling in Europe. She remembers keeping a dinner date at a Michelin-starred restaurant but tasting nothing. “I didn’t have the heart to tell my host,” she said.

It may sound like a case of Covid-19. But Ms. Carmichael, 72, a fellow at the University of Virginia’s business school, lost her ability to taste and smell for three years in the 1990s. The only respiratory infection she’d had was bronchitis.

Medical scientists say that although the complications of Covid have riveted peoples’ attention, many symptoms — like a loss of smell — are not unique to Covid. Heart inflammation, lung and nerve damage and small blood clots in the lining of lungs occur in a small but noticeable percentage of patients who have had other respiratory and viral infections. And these patients, too, can also have their own version of “long Covid.”

No one is saying Covid is the equivalent of, say, the flu that circulates each year. The usual seasonal flu has not killed millions worldwide in a single year, and more than half a million Americans, while upending society and ravaging economies. But Covid-19 is providing a new opportunity to understand the complications of many common viral infections.

Before the pandemic, research grants to study a loss of smell were hard to come by, said Danielle R. Reed, associate director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center, a nonprofit research group, in Philadelphia.

“It seemed like nobody cared,” she said. But now, “there is an explosive growth of interest among funders.” (She added that most who say they have lost a sense of taste have really lost a sense of smell.)

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