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Daily briefing: Answers emerging on COVID and smell loss

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A man who lost his sense of smell after COVID-19 helps a woman recognize smells at a therapeutic workshop in Italy, in 2021.

After a COVID-19 infection, some people have recovered their ability to perceive odours thanks to smell training.Credit: Fabio Bucciarelli/The New York Times/eyevine

Answers emerging on COVID and smell loss

Smell disruption is becoming a less-common symptom of COVID-19 as the virus evolves, but given that more than half a billion cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed worldwide, tens of millions of people probably have lingering problems with their sense of smell.

The virus seems to cause damage to the olfactory neurons in the nose, scrambling their nuclei. Some people also seem to be genetically predisposed to smell or taste loss. And the dampened sense seems to be linked to lasting changes to the brain — maybe because a lack of input causes the brain’s olfactory centre to atrophy.

A multitude of potential treatments to tackle the condition, including steroids and blood plasma, are undergoing clinical trials. But it’s still early days, so the only thing that most researchers recommend for now is smell training: practising with samples of strong-smelling substances to restore olfactory signalling (however, this requires that some sense of smell remains).Meanwhile, chemists have identified 15 compounds found in foods such as coffee and garlic that make things smell burnt or rotten to people with parosmia. The condition can come with recovery from smell loss caused by a virus and has become more common during the COVID-19 pandemic. “This is solid evidence that it’s not ‘all in the head’,” says chemist Jane Parker, who led the research.

Nature | 6 min read & Chemistry World | 3 min read

UK scientists told Horizon grants cancelled

The United Kingdom is on the cusp of leaving the largest collaborative research programme in the world, Horizon Europe. On 8 June, some UK researchers who had already won Horizon funding received notice that their grants will be cancelled. On the same day, the UK science minister said in a speech that “we’re reaching a crunch point” in negotiations with the European Union that have delayed ratification of a Horizon deal. At issue is the complex political situation between the Republic of Ireland (which is still in the European Union) and Northern Ireland (which is not). The United Kingdom says it has an alternative solution to Horizon, called Plan B, but the details of how this would operate are unclear.

Nature | 6 min read

‘Extinct’ Galápagos tortoise found alive

A single Fernandina Island Galápagos giant tortoise — a species thought to be extinct for 100 years — has been found. The female Chelonoidis phantasticus is only the second tortoise ever to be discovered on the island, after a single male, which was collected in 1906. Researchers have also found tortoise faeces on the island, which is uninhabited and difficult to access. “Our hope is that there are still a couple of other of these tortoises out there on the island,” says evolutionary genomicist Stephen Gaughran, who confirmed the match with the male museum specimen. “But most likely there aren’t very many of them.”

New Scientist | 3 min read

Reference: Communications Biology paper

A female tortoise nicknamed “Fernanda”

‘Fernanda’ was found in an isolated patch of vegetation, cut off from the main part of the island by several lava flows. Scientists estimate that she is well over 50 years old, but her growth is stunted. Fernanda is now in captivity at the Galápagos National Park Tortoise Center.Lucas Bustamante/Galapagos Conservancy

Features & opinion

Five best science books this week

Andrew Robinson’s pick of the top five science books to read this week includes the neuroscience of how we navigate, an alarming overview of Earth’s water crisis and a guide to making numbers really resonate.

Nature | 3 min read

Futures: science fiction from Nature

In this week’s helping of short stories for Nature’s Futures series:

• A hard-boiled private detective (and a tentacled interloper) take advantage of ‘imaginary’ dimensions in ‘Private i

• Luggage-eating monsters are irritating travellers at the ‘Baggage claims at the worst-reviewed spaceport in the Galaxy

Podcast: Best of the Briefing

This week’s Nature Podcast delves into some of the most fascinating stories recently featured in this very newsletter, including a ‘unicorn’ fossil that hints at the origins of giraffes’ long necks, a wave of researchers joining the ‘great resignation’ and how the Perseverance rover is kicking off a search for life on Mars.

Nature Podcast | 18 min listen

Subscribe to the Nature Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts or Spotify

Innovations in health equity

The path to fair health care

As the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic washed across the world, it left devastation in its wake — devastation that was consistently most acute among disadvantaged people and in marginalized communities.

COVID-19 made obvious what many already knew: inequity — whether because of race, culture, skin colour, income or caste — can be lethal.

• Mental-health specialists are facing up to cracks in the US health-care system that have widened because of the pandemic. Key to rethinking mental-health provision is improving access to care and addressing the foundational drivers of health, such as the availability of nutritious food and secure housing. (11 min read)

• Before COVID-19, tuberculosis (TB) had killed more people globally than any other communicable disease. “Even before the pandemic, we were not making good progress,” says epidemiologist Madhukar Pai. “But the past two years have been so bad that we have lost something like ten years of progress in TB.” In 2021, for the first time in more than a decade, TB mortality increased. (11 min read)

• Cardiovascular disease was once pegged as a disease of the rich, linked to too much indulgence and too little exercise. More recently, although screening and treatment have decreased mortality linked to heart attacks in some groups, others remain overlooked or unable to make substantive enough lifestyle changes to see much improvement. (14 min read)

• Forty years after the first cases of HIV were described, HIV care has improved dramatically — but not for everyone. Preventive and therapeutic treatments often don’t reach those who need them most acutely. (6 min read)

• Meet four innovators — a data-digging epidemiologist, an activist midwife, a doctor who traded clinic work for community activism and a pollution-tracking entrepreneur — who are creating paths towards more equitable care. (10 min read)

Innovations In Health Equity is an editorially independent supplement produced with the financial support of Takeda.

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-022-01656-5

Today Leif Pensuinson is negotiating the Takh Takh Meadow lava flow that reaches from the flanks of majestic Mount Adams to the shores of stunning Takhlakh Lake in the United States. Can you find the penguin?

The answer will be in Monday’s e-mail, all thanks to Briefing photo editor and penguin wrangler Tom Houghton.

This newsletter is always evolving — tell us what you think! Please send your feedback to briefing@nature.com.

Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing

With contributions by Nicky Phillips

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