RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A new study from VCU researchers indicates that people infected with the COVID-19 omicron variant are significantly less likely to develop smell and taste loss compared to those infected by delta and earlier COVID-19 variants.

The study was conducted using a national database of over 3.5 million cases of patients who tested positive for COVID-19. Compared to the early phase of the pandemic before variants were identified, the chance of smell and taste loss was just 17% for omicron, 44% for delta and 50% for the alpha variant.

“As the pandemic continues and new variants emerge, this is very good news for patients,” said Daniel Coelho, M.D., lead author and a professor in the Department of Otolaryngology at the VCU School of Medicine. “We now know that each variant has a different risk factor for associated smell and taste loss and have reason to believe that newer variants are less likely to impact smell and taste.”

Unfortunately, the findings may also indicate that diagnoses will be impacted.

“Loss of smell and taste is still a good indicator of a COVID-19 infection, but the reverse is no longer true,” Coelho said. “Do not think you are COVID-negative just because your sense of smell and taste is normal.”

The research team will next be studying the recovery time from smell and taste loss based on the different variants. More research is needed to explore if vaccination status also plays a role in the reduced rates of smell loss.

The team has been studying smell and taste loss since April 2020. Coelho and his team are also working to develop an implant device to restore sense of smell, much like a hearing aid restores hearing. The project, which they have been working on for several years, has received international interest since the onset of the pandemic as more cases of smell loss arise.

“This is not just about being able to enjoy a fine bottle of wine again; it’s about safety and preserving your quality of life,” Coelho said. “Our research shows that more than 50% of people suffering from smell and taste loss have reported feeling depressed. Patients with smell loss also have a higher rate of dementia. Fewer people experiencing these symptoms means fewer people being impacted by mood changes and cognitive problems.”