Loss of smell and taste in combination with other symptoms is a strong predictor of COVID-19 infection

9 Apr, 2020


Importance: A strategy for preventing further spread of the ongoing COVID-19 epidemic is to detect infections and isolate infected individuals without the need of extensive bio-specimen testing. Objectives: Here we investigate the prevalence of loss of smell and taste among COVID-19 diagnosed individuals and we identify the combination of symptoms, besides loss of smell and taste, most likely to correspond to a positive COVID-19 diagnosis in non-severe cases. Design: Community survey. Setting and Participants: Subscribers of RADAR COVID-19, an app that was launched for use among the UK general population asking about COVID-19 symptoms. Main Exposure: Loss of smell and taste. Main Outcome Measures: COVID-19. Results: Between 24 and 29 March 2020, 1,573,103 individuals reported their symptoms via the app; 26% reported suffering from one or more symptoms of COVID-19. Of those, n=1702 reported having had a RT-PCR COVID-19 test and gave full report on symptoms including loss of smell and taste; 579 were positive and 1123 negative. In this subset, we find that loss of smell and taste were present in 59% of COVID-19 positive individuals compared to 18% of those negative to the test, yielding an odds ratio (OR) of COVID-19 diagnosis of OR[95%CI]=6.59[5.25; 8.27], P= 1.90x10-59. We also find that a combination of loss of smell and taste, fever, persistent cough, fatigue, diarrhoea, abdominal pain and loss of appetite is predictive of COVID-19 positive test with sensitivity 0.54[0.44; 0.63], specificity 0.86[0.80; 0.90], ROC-AUC 0.77[0.72; 0.82] in the test set, and cross-validation ROC-AUC 0.75[0.72; 0.77]. When applied to the 410,598 individuals reporting symptoms but not formally tested, our model predicted that 13.06%[12.97%;13.15] of these might have been already infected by the virus. Conclusions and Relevance: Our study suggests that loss of taste and smell is a strong predictor of having been infected by the COVID-19 virus. Also, the combination of symptoms that could be used to identify and isolate individuals includes anosmia, fever, persistent cough, diarrhoea, fatigue, abdominal pain and loss of appetite. This is particularly relevant to healthcare and other key workers in constant contact with the public who have not yet been tested for COVID-19.