Three mechanisms have been proposed to account for COVID-19 associated olfactory dysfunction; obstruction of the olfactory cleft; epithelial injury and infection of the sustentacular supporting cells, which are known to express ACE2, or injury to the olfactory bulb due to axonal transport through olfactory sensory neurones. The absence of ACE2 expression by olfactory sensory neurones has led to the neurotropic potential of COVID-19 to be discounted. While an accumulating body of evidence supports olfactory epithelial injury as an important mechanism, this does not account for all the features of olfactory dysfunction seen in COVID-19; for example the duration of loss in some patients, evidence of changes within the olfactory bulb on MRI imaging, identification of viral particles within the olfactory bulb in post-mortem specimens and the inverse association between severity of COVID-19 and the prevalence of olfactory loss. The recent identification of a second route of viral entry mediated by NRP1 addresses many of these inconsistencies. Expression by the olfactory sensory neurones and their progenitor cells may facilitate direct injury and axonal transport to the olfactory bulb as well as a mechanism for delayed or absent recovery. Expression by regulatory T cells may play a central role in the cytokine storm. Variability in expression by age, race or gender may explain differing morbidity of infection and inverse association between anosmia and severity; in the case of higher expression there may be a higher risk of olfactory function but greater activation of regulatory T cells that may suppress the cytokine storm.
- Disease severity
- Olfactory loss