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Trying to Make Sense of Long COVID Syndrome

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Credit: NIH

More than 400,000 Americans have now lost their lives to COVID-19. But thousands of others who’ve gotten sick and survived COVID-19 are finding that a full recovery can be surprisingly elusive. Weeks and months after seemingly recovering from even mild cases of COVID-19, many battle a wide range of health problems.

Indeed, new results from the largest global study of this emerging “Long COVID syndrome” highlight just how real and pressing this public health concern really is. The study, reported recently as a pre-print on medRxiv, is based on survey results from more than 3,700 self-described COVID “Long Haulers” in 56 countries [1]. They show nearly half couldn’t work full time six months after unexpectedly developing prolonged symptoms of COVID-19. A small percentage of respondents, thankfully, seemed to have bounced back from brief bouts of Long COVID, though time will tell whether they have fully recovered.

These findings are the second installment from the online Body Politic COVID-19 Support Group and its Patient-Led Research for COVID-19, which consists of citizen scientists with a wide range of expertise in the arts and sciences who are struggling with the prolonged effects of COVID-19 themselves. In an earlier survey, this group provided a first-draft description of Long COVID syndrome, based on the self-reported experiences of 640 respondents.

In the new survey-based study led by Athena Akrami, with Patient-Led Research for COVID-19 and University College London, England, the goal was to characterize the experiences of many more people with Long COVID syndrome. They now define the syndrome as a collection of symptoms lasting for more than 28 days.

This second survey emphasizes the course and severity of more than 200 symptoms over time, including those affecting the heart, lungs, gastrointestinal system, muscles, and joints. It took a particularly in-depth look at neurological and neuropsychiatric symptoms, along with the ability of COVID-19 survivors to return to work and participate in other aspects of everyday life.

The 3,762 individuals who responded to the survey were predominately white females, between the ages of 30 and 60, who lived in the United States. As in the previous survey, the study included adults with symptoms consistent with COVID-19, whether or not the infection had been confirmed by a viral or antibody test. That is a potential weakness of the study, as some of these individuals may have had some other inciting illness. But many of the study’s participants developed symptoms early on in the pandemic, when testing was much more limited than it is now.

More than half never sought hospital care. Only 8 percent said that they’d been admitted to the hospital for COVID-19. And yet, 2,464 respondents reported COVID-19 symptoms lasting six months or longer. Most of the remaining respondents also continued to have symptoms, although they had not yet reached the six-month mark.

Among the most common symptoms were fatigue, worsening of symptoms after physical or mental activity, shortness of breath, trouble sleeping, and “brain fog,” or difficulty thinking clearly. The majority—88 percent—said they coped with some form of cognitive dysfunction or memory loss that to varying degrees affected their everyday lives. That includes the ability to make decisions, have conversations, follow instructions, and drive.

Those who had prolonged symptoms of COVID-19 for more than six months reported contending with about 14 symptoms on average. Most also reported that they’d had a relapse of symptoms, seemingly triggered by exercise, mental activity, or just everyday stress. When surveyed, nearly half of respondents said they’d had to reduce their hours at work due to the severity of their symptoms. Another 22 percent weren’t working at all due to their Long COVID.

The findings show that—even in those people who don’t require hospitalization for severe COVID-19—the condition’s prolonged symptoms are having a major impact on lives and livelihoods, both here and around the world. While the number of people affected isn’t yet known, if even a small proportion of the vast numbers of people infected with COVID-19 develop Long COVID syndrome, it represents a significant public health concern.

Another recent study from China further documents the tendency of COVID-19-related symptoms to linger past the usual recovery time for a respiratory virus [2]. The study, published in Lancet, showed that six months after the onset of illness, more than 75 percent of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Wuhan between January and May 2020 continued to report at least one symptom. Fatigue, muscle weakness, sleep difficulties, anxiety, and depression all were common. More than half of individuals also had significant persistent lung abnormalities, which were more common in those who’d been more severely ill.

It’s essential for us to learn all we can about how SARS-CoV-2, which is the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, leads to such widespread symptoms. It’s also essential that we develop ways to better treat or prevent these symptoms. The NIH held a workshop last month to summarize what is known and fill in key gaps in our knowledge about Long COVID syndrome, which is clinically known as post-acute sequelae of COVID-19 (PASC). In December, Congress authorized funding for continued research on PASC, including an appropriation of funds for NIH to support continued study of these prolonged health consequences.

As these efforts and others proceed in the coming months, the hope is that we’ll gain much more insight and get some answers soon. And, if you’ve had or are currently experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, there’s still time to share your data by participating in the Patient-Led Research for COVID-19’s second survey.

References:

[1] Characterizing Long COVID in an international cohort: 7 months of symptoms and their impact. David HE et al. Medrxiv. 27 December 27 2020.

[2] 6-month consequences of COVID-19 in patients discharged from hospital: a cohort study. Huang C, Huang L, et al. Lancet. 2021 Jan 16;397(10270):220-232.

Links:

COVID-19 Research (NIH)

Akrami Lab (Sainsbury Wellcome Center, University College London, England)

Patient-led Research for COVID-19

Video: Workshop on Post-Acute Sequelae of COVID-19 (NIH)


Citizen Scientists Take on the Challenge of Long-Haul COVID-19

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Woman frustrated while working
Credit: iStock/Poike

Coronaviruses are a frequent cause of the common cold. Most of us bounce back from colds without any lasting health effects. So, you might think that individuals who survive other infectious diseases caused by coronaviruses—including COVID-19—would also return to normal relatively quickly. While that can be the case for some people, others who’ve survived even relatively mild COVID-19 are experiencing health challenges that may last for weeks or even months. In fact, the situation is so common, that some of these folks have banded together and given their condition a name: the COVID “long-haulers.”

Among the many longer-term health problems that have been associated with COVID-19 are shortness of breath, fatigue, cognitive issues, erratic heartbeat, gastrointestinal issues, low-grade fever, intolerance to physical or mental activity, and muscle and joint pains. COVID-19 survivors report that these symptoms flair up unpredictably, often in different combinations, and can be debilitating for days and weeks at a time. Because COVID-19 is such a new disease, little is known about what causes the persistence of symptoms, what is impeding full recovery, or how to help the long-haulers.

More information is now emerging from the first detailed patient survey of post-COVID syndrome, also known as Long COVID [1]. What’s unique about the survey is that it has been issued by a group of individuals who are struggling with the syndrome themselves. These citizen scientists, who belong to the online Body Politic COVID-19 Support Group, decided to take matters into their own hands. They already had a pretty good grip on what sort of questions to ask, as well as online access to hundreds of long-haulers to whom they could pose the questions.

The citizen scientists’ group, known as the Patient-led Research for COVID-19, brought a lot of talent and creativity to the table. Members reside in the United States, Canada, and England, and none have ever met face to face. But, between their day jobs, managing time differences, and health challenges, each team member spends about 20 hours per week working on their patient-led research, and are now putting the final touches on a follow-up survey that will get underway in the next few weeks.

For their first survey, the group members faced the difficult decision of whom to contact. First, they needed to define long hauler. For that, they decided to target people whose symptoms persisted for more than 2 weeks after their initial recovery from COVID-19. The 640 individuals who responded to the survey were predominately white females between the ages of 30 to 49 who lived in the United States. The members said that the gender bias may stem from women being more likely to join support groups and complete surveys, though there may be a gender component to Long COVID as well. About 10 percent of respondents reported that they had ultimately recovered from this post-COVID syndrome.

Another important issue revolved around COVID-19 testing. Most long-haulers in the online group had gotten sick in March and April, but weren’t so sick that they needed to be hospitalized. Because COVID-19 testing during those months was often limited to people hospitalized with severe respiratory problems, many long-haulers with mild or moderate COVID-like symptoms weren’t tested. Others were tested relatively late in the course of their illness, which can increase the likelihood of false negatives.

The team opted to cast a wide investigative net, concluding that limiting its data to only people who tested positive for COVID-19 might lead to the loss of essential information on long-haulers. It turns out that half of the respondents hadn’t been tested for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The other half was divided almost equally between those who tested positive and those who tested negative. Here are some highlights of the survey’s findings:

Top 10 Symptoms: Respondents were asked to rank their most common symptoms and their relative severity. From highest to lowest, they were: mild shortness of breath, mild tightness of chest, moderate fatigue, mild fatigue, chills or sweats, mild body aches, dry cough, elevated temperature (98.8-100), mild headache, and brain fog/concentration challenges. Highlighting the value of patient-led research, the team was able to assemble an initial list of 62 symptoms that long-haulers often discuss in support groups. The survey revealed common symptoms that have been greatly underreported in the media, such as neurological symptoms. These include brain fog, concentration challenges, and dizziness.

Making a Recovery: Of the 60 respondents who had recovered, the average time to recovery was 27 days. The respondents who had not recovered had managed their symptoms for 40 days on average, with most dealing with health problems for 5 to 7 weeks. The report shows that the chance of full recovery by day 50 is less than 20 percent.

Exercise Capacity: About 65 percent of respondents now consider themselves mostly sedentary. Most had been highly physically active before developing COVID-19. Many long-haulers expressed concern that overexertion causes relapses

Testing. Respondents who reported testing positive for SARS-CoV-2 were tested on average earlier in their illness (by day 10) than those who reported testing negative (by day 16). The team noted that their findings parallel those in a recent published scientific study, which found false-negative rates for current PCR-based assays rose as the time between SARS-CoV-2 infection and testing increased [2]. In that published study, by day 21, the false-negative rate reached 66 percent. Only two symptoms (loss of smell and loss of taste) occurred more frequently in respondents who tested positive; the other 60 symptoms were statistically the same between groups. The citizen scientists speculate that testing is not capturing a subset of COVID patients, and more investigation is required.

Since issuing their survey results on May 11, the team has met with staff from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. Their work also been mentioned in magazine articles and even cited in some papers published in scientific journals.

In their next survey, these citizen scientists hope to fill in gaps in their first report, including examining antibody testing results, neurological symptoms, and the role of mental health. To increase geographic and demographic diversity, they will also translate the survey into 10 languages. If you’re a COVID-19 long-hauler and would like to find out how to get involved, there’s still time to take part in the next survey.

References:

[1] “What Does COVID-19 Recovery Actually Look Like?” Patient-led Research for COVID-19. May 11, 2020.

[2] Variation in False-Negative Rate of Reverse Transcriptase Polymerase Chain Reaction-Based SARS-CoV-2 Tests by Time Since Exposure. Kucirka LM, Lauer SA, Laeyendecker O, Boon D, Lessler J. Ann Intern Med. 2020 Aug 18;173(4):262-267.

Links:

Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

Patient-led Research for COVID-19