Research into mysterious ‘Long COVID’ symptoms picking up steam –

The long-term effects of COVID-19 continue to be a murky subject full of unsettling concerns such as lasting heart and nerve damage, but the effort to understand them is gaining strength and urgency.

In the past week the Centers for Disease Control updated its public guidance on what’s sometimes known as “Long COVID,” with sufferers known as “long haulers.” On Sunday, the United Kingdom’s National Health Service announced that it was organizing a network of more than 40 specialist clinics to help sufferers and launching a task force whose mission is to produce a better understanding of just what Long COVID is.

The CDC says researchers are learning “that many organs besides the lungs are affected by COVID-19 and there are many ways the infection can affect someone’s health.” It goes on to say that even when people have initial bouts of COVID-19 that are very mild, troubling symptoms can emerge afterward. These can include fatigue, shortness of breath, coughing, joint pain and chest pain, but also “brain fog,” depression, muscle pain, headaches, intermittent fever and heart palpitations.

Quick answers may not be at hand. The CDC says that “multi-year studies” will attempt to answer “how common these symptoms are, who is most likely to get them, and whether these symptoms eventually resolve.”

The same unknowns face the NHS, which says it thinks more than 60,000 people in the UK may suffer from Long COVID. “More recent evidence is also showing that long COVID can be categorised into four different syndromes,” said an NHS announcement released Sunday. It identifies these as “post intensive care syndrome, post viral fatigue syndrome, permanent organ damage and long term COVID syndrome.”

“Long COVID is already having a very serious impact on many people’s lives and could well go on to affect hundreds of thousands,” said NHS Chief Executive Sir Simon Stevens. “These pioneering ‘long COVID’ clinics will help address the very real problems being faced by patients today while the taskforce will help the NHS develop a greater understanding of the lasting effects of coronavirus.”

World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus recently described the range of serious long-term consequences as “really concerning.” He said the unknown danger “reinforces to me just how morally unconscionable and unfeasible the so called ‘natural herd immunity’ strategy is.”

The sheer mass of unknowns makes for concerned headlines in research papers and medical publications. One pervasive concern is that Long COVID may place heavy new long-term burdens on health care systems. Two areas of particular concern are long-term neurological disorders and heart trouble caused by COVID-related inflammation.

But for now, even getting a handle on how big a percentage of COVID-19 cases lead to Long COVID symptoms is a challenge. Early studies of how many people still have symptoms 90 days after infection have ranged from less than 10% up to 25%, according to a new Washington Post report summing up the state of Long COVID understanding.

The numbers may not come into focus until scientists better understand the mechanisms by which COVID-19 can affect nerves, the heart, and even the digestive system.

“I haven’t really seen any other illness that affects so many different organ systems in as many different ways as COVID-19 does,” Zijian Chen, medical director for Mount Sinai Health System’s Center for Post-COVID Care, told the Post.

While the search for answers is a complex business involving many disciplines, the good news is that any one of them could produce a breakthrough. One problem cited by scientists since the beginning of the pandemic is that COVID-19 can trigger a wild response from the immune system that does as much damage as the disease itself.

According to a fresh report from Kaiser Health News there’s new insight into that issue. Researchers think they’ve found a genetic explanation, one that could explain why some people get so much sicker than others. It could potentially lead to “targeted therapies” for those whose immune systems are prone to friendly fire.

“This is one of the most important things we’ve learned about the immune system since the start of the pandemic,” Dr. Eric Topol, executive vice president for research at Scripps Research in San Diego, who was not involved in the new study, said in the Kaiser report. “This is a breakthrough finding.”