Loss and changes in taste and smell are well-reported symptoms of SARS-CoV-2 infection. The virus targets cells for entry by high affinity binding of its spike protein to cell-surface angiotensin-converting enzyme-2 (ACE2). It was not known whether ACE2 is expressed on taste receptor cells (TRCs) nor if TRCs are infected directly. Using an
hybridization (ISH) probe and an antibody specific to ACE2, it seems evident that ACE2 is present on a subpopulation of specialized TRCs, namely, PLCβ
positive, Type II cells in taste buds in taste papillae. Fungiform papillae (FP) of a SARS-CoV-2+ patient exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19, including taste changes, were biopsied. Based on ISH, replicating SARS-CoV-2 was present in Type II cells of this patient. Therefore, taste Type II cells provide a portal for viral entry that predicts vulnerabilities to SARS-CoV-2 in the oral cavity. The continuity and cell turnover of the FP taste stem cell layer of the patient were disrupted during infection and had not fully recovered 6 weeks post symptom onset. Another patient suffering post-COVID-19 taste disturbances also had disrupted stem cells. These results indicate that a COVID-19 patient who experienced taste changes had replicating virus in their taste buds and that SARS-CoV-2 infection results in deficient stem cell turnover needed for differentiation into TRCs.