RECOVER: What Clinical Research Comes Next for Helping People with Long COVID
Posted on by Gary Gibbons, M.D., National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; Walter Koroshetz, M.D., National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; Hugh Auchincloss, M.D., National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
“I connected with RECOVER to be a part of the answers that I was looking for when I was at my worst.” Long COVID patient and RECOVER representative, Nitza Rochez (Bronx, NY)
People, like Nitza Rochez, who are living with Long COVID—the wide-ranging health issues that can follow an infection with SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19—experience disabling symptoms with significant physical, emotional and financial consequences.
The NIH has been engaging and listening to Nitza and others living with Long COVID even before the start of its Researching COVID to Enhance Recovery (RECOVER) Initiative. But now, with the launch of RECOVER, patients and those with affected family or community members have joined researchers, clinicians, and experts in their efforts to unlock the mysteries of Long COVID. All have come together to understand what causes the condition, identify who is most at risk, and determine how to prevent and treat it.
RECOVER is unprecedented in its size and scope as the most-diverse, deeply characterized cohort of Long COVID patients. We’ve enlisted the help of many patient volunteers, who have enrolled in observational studies designed to help researchers learn as much as possible about people who have Long COVID.
Indeed, thousands of research participants are now providing health information and undergoing in-depth medical evaluations and tests, enabling investigators to look for trends. Additionally, studies of millions of electronic medical records are providing insights about those who have received care during the pandemic. More than 40 studies are being conducted to identify the causes of disease, potential biomarkers of Long COVID, and new therapeutic targets.
In all, RECOVER’s research assets are voluminous. They involve invaluable contributions from many people and communities, including research volunteers, research investigators, and clinical specialists. In addition, millions of health records and numerous related tissues and specimens are being analyzed for possible leads.
At the center of it all is the National Community Engagement Group (NCEG). The NCEG is comprised of people living with Long COVID and those representing others living with the condition, and it is truly instrumental to the initiative’s progress in understanding how and why SARS-CoV-2 impacts people in different ways. It’s also helping researchers learn why some people recover while others do not.
So far, we’ve learned that people hospitalized with COVID-19 are twice as likely to have Long COVID than those who were not hospitalized for infection. We’ve also learned that members of racial and ethnic minority groups with Long COVID were more likely to have been hospitalized with COVID-19.
Similarly, disparities in Long COVID exist within those living in areas with particular environmental exposures , and those who were already burdened by other diseases and conditions—such as diabetes and chronic pulmonary disease . We’ve also discovered that the certain types of symptoms of Long COVID are consistent among patients regardless of which SARS-CoV-2 variant caused their initial infection. Yet, people infected with the earlier variants have a higher number of symptoms than those infected with more recent variants.
Patient experiences have guided and will continue to guide the study designs and trajectory of RECOVER. Now, fueled by the knowledge that we have gained, RECOVER is preparing to advance to the next phase of discovery—testing interventions in clinical trials to see if they can help people with Long COVID.
To prepare, we are beginning to identify potential clinical trial sites. This important step will help us to find the right places with the right staff and capabilities for enrolling the appropriate patient populations needed to implement the studies. We’ll ensure that the public knows when these upcoming clinical trials are ready to enroll.
Of course, the design of these RECOVER clinical trials will be critical, and insights gained from patients have been key in this process. Results from RECOVER study questionnaires, surveys, and discussions with people experiencing Long COVID identified symptom clusters considered to be the most significant and burdensome to patients. These include sleep disorders, “brain fog” (trouble thinking clearly), exercise intolerance and fatigue, and nervous system dysfunction affecting people’s ability to regulate normal body functions like heart rate and body temperature.
These patient observations have effectively guided the design of the clinical trials that will evaluate whether certain interventions and therapies can help alleviate symptoms that are part of these specific clusters. We’re excited to be advancing toward this phase of the initiative and, again, are very grateful to patient representatives like Nitza, quoted above, for getting us to this phase.
Effective evaluation of those treatments will be important, too. Early in the pandemic, while many clinical trials were launching, most were not large enough or did not have the appropriate objectives to define effective treatments for acute COVID-19. This left clinicians with few clear options when faced with patients needing help.
Learning from this experience, the RECOVER trials will be harmonized to ensure coordinated and efficient evaluation of interventions—in other words, all potential therapies will be using the same protocols platforms and the same data elements. This consistency accelerates our understanding and strengthens the certainty of findings.
Given the widespread and diverse impact that the virus has on the body, it is highly likely that more than one treatment will be needed for each kind of patient experience. Finding solutions for everyone—people of all races, ethnicities, genders, ages, and geographic locations—is paramount.
RECOVER patient representative, Juan Lewis, of San Antonio shared with us, “In April 2020, I was fighting for my life, and today I fight for my quality of life. COVID impacted me physically, mentally, socially, and financially.”
For people like Juan who are experiencing debilitating Long COVID symptoms, we know that finding answers as quickly as possible is critical. As we look ahead to the next 12 months, we’ll continue the studies evaluating the underlying causes, risk factors, and outcomes of Long Covid, and we anticipate significant scientific progress on research leading to Long COVID treatments.
Keep an eye on the RECOVER website for updates on our progress, and published findings.
 Identifying environmental risk factors for post-acute sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 infection: An EHR-based cohort study from the recover program. Zhang Y, Hu H, Fokaidis V, V CL, Xu J, Zang C, Xu Z, Wang F, Koropsak M, Bian J, Hall J, Rothman RL, Shenkman EA, Wei WQ, Weiner MG, Carton TW, Kaushal R. Environ Adv. 2023 Apr;11:100352.
 Identifying who has long COVID in the USA: a machine learning approach using N3C data. Pfaff ER, Girvin AT, Bennett TD, Bhatia A, Brooks IM, Deer RR, Dekermanjian JP, Jolley SE, Kahn MG, Kostka K, McMurry JA, Moffitt R, Walden A, Chute CG, Haendel MA; N3C Consortium. Lancet Digit Health. 2022 Jul;4(7):e532-e541.
RECOVER: Researching COVID to Enhance Recovery
Long COVID: Ask NIH Leader about Latest Research (YouTube)
NIH Builds Large Nationwide Study Population of Tens of Thousands to Support Research on Long-Term Effects of COVID-19, NIH News Release, September 15, 2021
Understanding Long-Term COVID-19 Symptoms and Enhancing Recovery, NIH Director’s Blog, October 4, 2022.
NIH RECOVER Research Identifies Potential Long COVID Disparities. NIH News Release, February 16, 2023.
NIH RECOVER Listening Session, June 2021 (NIH Videocast)
NIH RECOVER Listening Session: Understanding Long COVID Across Communities of Color and Those Hardest Hit by COVID, January 21, 2022 (NIH Videocast)
Note: Dr. Lawrence Tabak, who performs the duties of the NIH Director, has asked the heads of NIH’s Institutes, Centers, and Offices to contribute occasional guest posts to the blog to highlight some of the interesting science that they support and conduct. This is the 25th in the series of NIH guest posts that will run until a new permanent NIH director is in place.
A Look Back at Science’s 2022 Breakthroughs
Posted on by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.
Happy New Year! I hope everyone finished 2022 with plenty to celebrate, whether it was completing a degree or certification, earning a promotion, attaining a physical fitness goal, or publishing a hard-fought scientific discovery.
If the latter, you are in good company. Last year produced some dazzling discoveries, and the news and editorial staff at the journal Science kept a watchful eye on the most high-impact advances of 2022. In December, the journal released its list of the top 10 advances across the sciences, from astronomy to zoology. In case you missed it, Science selected NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) as the 2022 Breakthrough of the Year .
This unique space telescope took 20 years to complete, but it has turned out to be time well spent. Positioned 1.5-million-kilometers from Earth, the JWST and its unprecedented high-resolution images of space have unveiled the universe anew for astronomers and wowed millions across the globe checking in online. The telescope’s image stream, beyond its sheer beauty, will advance study of the early Universe, allowing astronomers to discover distant galaxies, explore the early formation of stars, and investigate the possibility of life on other planets.
While the biomedical sciences didn’t take home the top prize, they were well represented among Science’s runner-up breakthroughs. Some of these biomedical top contenders also have benefited, directly or indirectly, from NIH efforts and support. Let’s take a look:
RSV vaccines nearing the finish line: It’s been one of those challenging research marathons. But scientists last year started down the homestretch with the first safe-and-effective vaccine for respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a leading cause of severe respiratory illness in the very young and the old.
In August, the company Pfizer presented evidence that its experimental RSV vaccine candidate offered protection for those age 60 and up. Later, they showed that the same vaccine, when administered to pregnant women, helped to protect their infants against RSV for six months after birth. Meanwhile, in October, the company GSK announced encouraging results from its late-stage phase III trial of an RSV vaccine in older adults.
As Science noted, the latest clinical progress also shows the power of basic science. For example, researchers have been working with chemically inactivated versions of the virus to develop the vaccine. But these versions have a key viral surface protein that changes its shape after fusing with a cell to start an infection. In this configuration, the protein elicits only weak levels of needed protective antibodies.
Back in 2013, Barney Graham, then with NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), and colleagues, solved the problem . Graham’s NIH team discovered a way to lock the protein into its original prefusion state, which the immune system can better detect. This triggers higher levels of potent antibodies, and the discovery kept the science—and the marathon—moving forward.
These latest clinical advances come as RSV and other respiratory viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, the cause of COVID-19, are sending an alarming number of young children to the hospital. The hope is that researchers will cross the finish line this year or next, and we’ll have the first approved RSV vaccine.
Virus fingered as cause of multiple sclerosis: Researchers have long thought that multiple sclerosis, or MS, has a viral cause. Pointing to the right virus with the required high degree of certainty has been the challenge, slowing progress on the treatment front for those in need. As published in Science last January, Alberto Ascherio, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston, and colleagues produced the strongest evidence yet that MS is caused by the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), a herpesvirus also known for causing infectious mononucleosis .
The link between EBV and MS had long been suspected. But it was difficult to confirm because EBV infections are so widespread, and MS is so disproportionately rare. In the recent study, the NIH-supported researchers collected blood samples every other year from more than 10 million young adults in the U.S. military, including nearly 1,000 who were diagnosed with MS during their service. The evidence showed that the risk of an MS diagnosis increased 32-fold after EBV infection, but it held steady following infection with any other virus. Levels in blood serum of a biomarker for MS neurodegeneration also went up only after an EBV infection, suggesting that the viral illness is a leading cause for MS.
Further evidence came last year from a discovery published in the journal Nature by William Robinson, Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, CA, and colleagues. The NIH-supported team found a close resemblance between an EBV protein and one made in the healthy brain and spinal cord . The findings suggest an EBV infection may produce antibodies that mistakenly attack the protective sheath surrounding our nerve cells. Indeed, the study showed that up to one in four people with MS had antibodies that bind both proteins.
This groundbreaking research suggests that an EBV vaccine and/or antiviral drugs that thwart this infection might ultimately prevent or perhaps even cure MS. Of note, NIAID launched last May an early-stage clinical trial for an experimental EBV vaccine at the NIH Clinical Center, Bethesda, MD.
AI Gets Creative: Science’s 2021 Breakthrough of the Year was AI-powered predictions of protein structure. In 2022, AI returned to take another well-deserved bow. This time, Science singled out AI’s now rapidly accelerating entry into once uniquely human attributes, such as artistic expression and scientific discovery.
On the scientific discovery side, Science singled out AI’s continued progress in getting creative with the design of novel proteins for vaccines and myriad other uses. One technique, called “hallucination,” generates new proteins from scratch. Researchers input random amino acid sequences into the computer, and it randomly and continuously mutates them into sequences that other AI tools are confident will fold into stable proteins. This greatly simplifies the process of protein design and frees researchers to focus their efforts on creating a protein with a desired function.
AI research now engages scientists around world, including hundreds of NIH grantees. Taking a broader view of AI, NIH recently launched the Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning Consortium to Advance Health Equity and Researcher Diversity (AIM-AHEAD) Program. It will help to create greater diversity within the field, which is a must. A lack of diversity could perpetuate harmful biases in how AI is used, how algorithms are developed and trained, and how findings are interpreted to avoid health disparities and inequities for underrepresented communities.
And there you have it, some of the 2022 breakthroughs from Science‘s news and editorial staff. Of course, the highlighted biomedical breakthroughs don’t capture the full picture of research progress. There were many other milestone papers published in 2022 that researchers worldwide will build upon in the months and years ahead to make further progress in their disciplines and, for some, draw the attention of Science’s news and editorial staff. Here’s to another productive year in biomedical research, which the blog will continue to feature and share with you as it unfolds in 2023.
 2022 Breakthrough of the Year. Science. Dec 15, 2022.
 Structure of RSV fusion glycoprotein trimer bound to a prefusion-specific neutralizing antibody. McLellan JS, Chen M, Leung S, Kwong PD, Graham BS, et al. Science. 2013 May 31;340(6136):1113-1117.
 Longitudinal analysis reveals high prevalence of Epstein-Barr virus associated with multiple sclerosis. Bjornevik K, Cortese M, Healy BC, Kuhle J, Mina MJ, Leng Y, Elledge SJ, Niebuhr DW, Scher AI, Munger KL, Ascherio A. Science. 2022 Jan 21;375(6578):296-301.
 Clonally expanded B cells in multiple sclerosis bind EBV EBNA1 and GlialCAM. Lanz TV, Brewer RC, Steinman L, Robinson WH, et al. Nature. 2022 Mar;603(7900):321-327.
Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)
Multiple Sclerosis (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke/NIH)
Barney Graham (Morehouse School of Medicine, Atlanta)
Alberto Ascherio (Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston)
Robinson Lab (Stanford Medicine, Stanford, CA)
Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning Consortium to Advance Health Equity and Researcher Diversity (AIM-AHEAD) Program (NIH)
James Webb Space Telescope (Goddard Space Flight Center/NASA, Greenbelt, MD)
NIH Collaboration Seeks to Help Understand U.S. Burden of Health Disparities: Why Your County Matters
Posted on by Eliseo J. Pérez-Stable, M.D., National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities
Since the early 1990s, federal support of research has increased to understand minority health and identify and address health disparities. Research in these areas has evolved from a starting point of developing a basic descriptive understanding of health disparities and who is most affected. Now, it is discovering the underlying complexity of factors involved in health outcomes to inform interventions and reduce these disparities.
One of these many factors is where we live, learn, work, and play and how that affects different people. A group of NIH scientists and their colleagues recently published a study in the journal The Lancet that they hope is a step toward better understanding geographic disparities and their role in health equity .
As Director of NIH’s National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD), I worked with NIMHD’s Scientific Director, Anna María Nápoles, to conceive the study and establish the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) U.S. Health Disparities Collaborators at NIH with five NIH Institutes and two Offices. Through this collaboration, NIH funded the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), University of Washington to conduct the analysis. The IHME has worked for 30 years on the GBD project in over 200 countries.
The Lancet paper offered the first comprehensive U.S. county-level life expectancy estimates to highlight the significant gaps that persist among racial and ethnic populations across the nation. The analysis revealed that despite overall life expectancy gains of 2.3 years from 2000–2019, Black populations experienced shorter life expectancy than White populations.
In addition, American Indian and Alaska Native populations’ life expectancy did not improve and, in fact, decreased in most counties. We found national-level life expectancy advantages for Hispanic/Latino and Asian populations ranging from three to seven years, respectively, compared to White populations. But there were notable exceptions for Hispanic/Latino populations in selected counties in the Southwest.
Certainly the most-alarming trend identified in the paper was that during the study’s last 10 years (2010–2019), life expectancy growth was stagnant across all races and ethnicities. Moreover, 60 percent of U.S. counties experienced a decrease in life expectancy.
While these findings provide an important frame for how disparities exist along many dimensions—by race, ethnicity, and geographic region—they also highlight these differences within our local communities. This level of detail offers an unprecedented opportunity for researchers and public health leaders to focus on where these differences are the most prominent, and possibly give us a clearer picture on what can be done about it.
These data raise many important questions, too. What can we learn from places that are doing well in caring for their most disadvantaged populations? How can these factors be sustained, replicated, and transferred to other places? Are there current policies and/or community services that contribute to or inhibit gaining access to appropriate clinical care, healthy and affordable food, good schools, and/or economic opportunities?
To help answer these questions, the GBD U.S. Health Disparities Collaborators at NIH, in partnership with IHME, have developed a comprehensive database and interactive data visualization tool that provides life expectancy and all-cause mortality by race and ethnicity for 3,110 U.S. counties from 2000-2019. Efforts are underway to expand the database to include causes of death and risk factors by race/ethnicity and education, as well as to disaggregate some of the major racial-ethnic groups.
Using IHME’s established model of comprehensive and replicable data collection, the joint effort aims to improve access to health data resources, bolster analytic approaches, and deliver user-friendly estimates to the wider research and health policy community. The collection’s standardized, comprehensive, historical, and real-time data can be the cornerstone for efforts to address disparities and advance health equity.
It is important to note that the Lancet study only included data from before the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic’s disproportionate effect on overall mortality and life expectancy has exacerbated existing health disparities. Disaggregated data are essential in helping to understand the underlying mechanisms of health disparities and guiding the development and implementation of interventions that address local needs.
As a clinician scientist, I have made a personal commitment at NIMHD to foster and encourage data collection with standardized measures, harmonization, and efficient data sharing to help us explore the nuances within all populations and their communities. Without these guiding principles for managing data, inequities remain unseen and unaddressed. Scientists, clinicians, and policymakers can all potentially benefit from this work if we use the data to inform our actions. It is an opportunity to implement real change in our NIH-wide combined efforts to reduce health disparities and improve quality of life and longevity for all populations.
 Life expectancy by county, race, and ethnicity in the USA, 2000-19: a systematic analysis of health disparities. GBD US Health Disparities Collaborators. Lancet. 2022 Jul 2;400(10345):25-38.
Understand Health Disparities Series (National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities/NIH)
HD Pulse (NIMHD)
PhenX Social Determinants of Health Toolkit (NIMHD)
Institute for Health Metrics (University of Washington, Seattle)
NIH Support: The members of the GBD U.S. Health Disparities Collaborators at NIH include: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Cancer Institute; National Institute on Aging; National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases; NIH Office of Disease Prevention; NIH Office of Behavioral and Social Science Research
Note: Dr. Lawrence Tabak, who performs the duties of the NIH Director, has asked the heads of NIH’s Institutes and Centers (ICs) to contribute occasional guest posts to the blog to highlight some of the interesting science that they support and conduct. This is the 17th in the series of NIH IC guest posts that will run until a new permanent NIH director is in place.
Suicide Prevention Research in a Rapidly Changing World
Posted on by Joshua A. Gordon, M.D., Ph.D., National Institute of Mental Health
As I sit down to write this blog, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to have a widespread impact, and we’re all trying to figure out our “new normal.” For some, figuring out the new normal has been especially difficult, and that’s something for all of us to consider during September, which is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. It’s such an important time to share what we know about suicide prevention and consider how we can further this knowledge to those in need.
At NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), we’ve been asking ourselves: What have we learned about suicide risk and prevention during the pandemic? And how should our research evolve to reflect a rapidly changing world?
Over the last few years, people have been concerned about the pandemic’s impact on suicide rates. So far, data suggest that the overall suicide rate in the U.S. has remained steady. But there is concerning evidence that the pandemic has disproportionately affected suicide risk in historically underserved communities.
For example, data suggest that people in minority racial and ethnic groups experienced greater increases in suicidal thoughts during the pandemic . Additional data indicate that suicide rates may be rising among some young adult racial and ethnic minority groups .
Structural racism and other social and environmental factors are major drivers of mental health disparities, and NIMH continues to invest in research to understand how these social determinants of health influence suicide risk. This research includes investigations into the effects of long-term and daily discrimination.
To mitigate these effects, it is critical that we identify specific underlying mechanisms so that we can develop targeted interventions. To this end, NIMH is supporting research in underserved communities to identify suicide risk and the protective factors and effective strategies for reducing this risk (e.g., RFA-MH-22-140, RFA-MH-21-188, RFA-MH-21-187). There are important lessons to be learned that we can’t afford to miss.
Building Solid Foundations
The pandemic also underscored the urgent need to support youth mental health. Indeed, in December 2021, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued the Advisory on Protecting Youth Mental Health, calling attention to increasing rates of depression and suicidal behaviors among young people. Crucially, the advisory highlighted the need to “recognize that mental health is an essential part of overall health.”
At NIMH, we know that establishing a foundation for good mental health early on can support a person’s overall health and well-being over a lifetime. In light of this, we are investing in research to identify effective prevention efforts that can help set kids on positive mental health trajectories early in life.
Additionally, by re-analyzing research investments already made, we are looking to see whether these early prevention efforts have meaningful impacts on later suicide risk and mental health outcomes. These findings may help to improve a range of systems—such as schools, social services, and health care—to better support kids’ mental health needs.
Improving and Expanding Access
The pandemic has also shown us that telehealth can be an effective means of delivering and increasing access to mental health care. The NIMH has supported research examining telehealth as a tool for improving suicide prevention services, including the use of digital tools that can help extend provider reach and support individuals at risk for suicide.
At the same time, NIMH is investing in work to understand the most effective ways to help providers use evidence-based approaches to prevent suicide. This research helps inform federal partners and others about the best ways to support policies and practices that help prevent suicide deaths.
In July, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) launched the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, a three-digit suicide prevention and mental health crisis number. This service builds on the existing National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, allowing anyone to call or text 988 to connect with trained counselors and mental health services. Research supported by NIMH helped build the case for such lifelines, and now we’re calling for research aimed at identifying the best ways to help people use this evolving crisis support system.
With these and many other efforts, we are hopeful that people who are at risk for suicidal thoughts and behaviors will be able to access the evidence-based support and services they need. This National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, I’d like to issue a call to action: Help raise awareness by sharing resources on how to recognize the warning signs for suicide and how to get help. By working together, we can prevent suicide and save lives.
 Racial and ethnic disparities in the prevalence of stress and worry, mental health conditions, and increased substance use among adults during the COVID-19 pandemic – United States, April and May 2020. McKnight-Eily LR, Okoro CA, Strine TW, Verlenden J, Hollis ND, Njai R, Mitchell EW, Board A, Puddy R, Thomas C. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2021 Feb 5;70(5):162-166.
 One Year In: COVID-19 and Mental Health. National Institute of Mental Health Director’s Message. April 9, 2021.
988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Rockville, MD)
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Treatment Locator (SAMHSA)
Help for Mental Illnesses (National Institute of Mental Health/NIH)
Suicide Prevention (NIMH)
Digital Shareables on Suicide Prevention (NIMH)
Digital Shareables on Coping with COVID-19 (NIMH)
NIMH Director’s Messages about COVID-19 (NIMH)
NIMH Director’s Messages about Suicide (NIMH)
Note: Dr. Lawrence Tabak, who performs the duties of the NIH Director, has asked the heads of NIH’s Institutes and Centers (ICs) to contribute occasional guest posts to the blog to highlight some of the interesting science that they support and conduct. This is the 16th in the series of NIH IC guest posts that will run until a new permanent NIH director is in place.
Research to Address the Real-Life Challenges of Opioid Crisis
Posted on by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.
While great progress has been made in controlling the COVID-19 pandemic, America’s opioid crisis continues to evolve in unexpected ways. The opioid crisis, which worsened during the pandemic and now involves the scourge of fentanyl, claims more than 70,000 lives each year in the United States . But throughout the pandemic, NIH has continued its research efforts to help people with a substance use disorder find the help that they so need. These efforts include helping to find relief for the millions of Americans who live with severe and chronic pain.
Recently, I traveled to Atlanta for the Rx and Illicit Drug Summit 2022. While there, I moderated an evening fireside chat with two of NIH’s leaders in combating the opioid crisis: Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA); and Rebecca Baker, director of Helping to End Addiction Long-term® (HEAL) initiative. What follows is an edited, condensed transcript of our conversation.
Tabak: Let’s start with Nora. When did the opioid crisis begin, and how has it changed over the years
Volkow: It started just before the year 2000 with the over-prescription of opioid medications. People were becoming addicted to them, many from diverted product. By 2010, CDC developed guidelines that decreased the over-prescription. But then, we saw a surge in heroin use. That turned the opioid crisis into two problems: prescription opioids and heroin.
In 2016, we encountered the worst scourge yet. It is fentanyl, an opioid that’s 50 times more potent than heroin. Fentanyl is easily manufactured, and it’s easier than other opioids to hide and transport across the border. That makes this drug very profitable.
What we have seen during the pandemic is the expansion of fentanyl use in the United States. Initially, fentanyl made its way to the Northeast; now it’s everywhere. Initially, it was used to contaminate heroin; now it’s used to contaminate cocaine, methamphetamine, and, most recently, illicit prescription drugs, such as benzodiazepines and stimulants. With fentanyl contaminating all these drugs, we’re also seeing a steep rise in mortality from cocaine and methamphetamine use in African Americans, American Indians, and Alaska natives.
Tabak: What about teens? A recent study in the journal JAMA reported for the first time in a decade that overdose deaths among U.S. teens rose dramatically in 2020 and kept rising through 2021 . Is fentanyl behind this alarming increase?
Volkow: Yes, and it has us very concerned. The increase also surprised us. Over the past decade, we have seen a consistent decrease in adolescent drug use. In fact, there are some drugs that have the lowest usage rates that we’ve ever recorded. To observe this more than doubling of overdose deaths from fentanyl before the COVID pandemic was a major surprise.
Adolescents don’t typically use heroin, nor do they seek out fentanyl. Our fear is adolescents are misusing illicit prescriptions contaminated with fentanyl. Because an estimated 30-40 percent of those tainted pills contain levels of fentanyl that can kill you, it becomes a game of Russian roulette. This dangerous game is being played by adolescents who may just be experimenting with illicit pills.
Tabak: For people with substance use disorders, there are new ways to get help. In fact, one of the very few positive outcomes of the pandemic is the emergence of telehealth. If we can learn to navigate the various regulatory issues, do you see a place for telehealth going forward?
Volkow: When you have a crisis like this one, there’s a real need to accelerate interventions and innovation like telehealth. It certainly existed before the pandemic, and we knew that telehealth was beneficial for the treatment of substance use disorders. But it was very difficult to get reimbursement, making access extremely limited.
When COVID overwhelmed emergency departments, people with substance use disorders could no longer get help there. Other interventions were needed, and telehealth helped fill the void. It also had the advantage of reaching rural populations in states such as Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio, where easy access to treatment or unique interventions can be challenging. In many prisons and jails, administrators worried about bringing web-based technologies into their facilities. So, in partnership with the Justice Department, we have created networks that now will enable the entry of telehealth into jails and prisons.
Tabak: Rebecca, it’s been four years since the HEAL initiative was announced at this very summit in 2018. How is the initiative addressing this ever-evolving crisis?
Baker: We’ve launched over 600 research projects across the country at institutions, hospitals, and research centers in a broad range of scientific areas. We’re working to come up with new treatment options for pain and addiction. There’s exciting research underway to address the craving and sleep disruption caused by opioid withdrawal. This research has led to over 20 investigational new drug applications to the FDA. Some are for repurposed drugs, compounds that have already been shown to be safe and effective for treating other health conditions that may also have value for treating addiction. Some are completely novel. We have also initiated the first testing of an opioid vaccine, for oxycodone, to prevent relapse and overdose in high-risk individuals.
Tabak: What about clinical research?
Baker: We’re testing multiple different treatments for both pain and addiction. Not everyone with pain is the same, and not every treatment is going to work the same for everyone. We’re conducting clinical trials in real-world settings to find out what works best for patients. We’re also working to implement lifesaving, evidence-based interventions into places where people seek help, including faith, community, and criminal justice settings.
Tabak: The pandemic highlighted inequities in our health-care system. These inequities afflict individuals and populations who are struggling with addiction and overdose. Nora, what needs to be done to address the social determinants of racial disparities?
Volkow: This is an extraordinarily important question. As you noted, certain racial and ethnic groups had disproportionately higher mortality rates from COVID. We have seen the same with overdose deaths. For example, we know that the most important intervention for preventing overdoses is to initiate medications such as methadone, buprenorphine or vivitrol. But Black Americans are initiated on these medications at least five years later than white Americans. Similarly, Black Americans also are less likely to receive the overdose-reversal medication naloxone.
That’s not right. We must ask what are the core causes of limited access to high-quality health care? Low income is a major contributing factor. Helping people get an education is one of the most important factors to address it. Another factor is distrust of the medical system. When racial and ethnic discrimination is compounded by discrimination because a person has a substance use disorder, you can see why it becomes very difficult for some to seek help. As a society, we certainly need to address racial discrimination. But we also need to address discrimination against substance use disorders in people of all races who are vulnerable.
Baker: Our research is tackling these barriers head on with a direct focus on stigma. As Nora alluded to, oftentimes providers may not offer lifesaving medication to some patients, and we’ve developed and are testing research training to help providers recognize and address their own biases and behaviors in caring for different populations.
We have supported research on the drivers of equity. A big part of this is engaging with people with lived experience and making sure that the interventions being designed are feasible in the real world. Not everyone has access to health insurance, transportation, childcare—the support that they may need to sustain treatment and recovery. In short, our research is seeking ways to enhance linkage to treatment.
Nora mentioned the importance of telehealth in improving equity. That’s another research focus, as well as developing tailored, culturally appropriate interventions for addressing pain and addiction. When you have this trust issue, you can’t always go in with a prescription or a recommendation from a physician. So in American and Alaskan native communities, we’re integrating evidence-based prevention approaches with traditional practices like wellness gatherings, cooking together, use of sage and spirituality, along with community support, and seeing if that encourages and increases the uptake of these prevention approaches in communities that need it so much.
Tabak: The most heartbreaking impact of the opioid crisis has been the infants born dependent on opioids. Rebecca, what’s being done to help the very youngest victims of the opioid crisis born with neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome, or NOWS?
Baker: Thanks for asking about the infants. Babies with NOWS undergo withdrawal at birth and cry inconsolably, often with extreme stomach upset and sometimes even with seizures. Our research found that hospitals across the country vary greatly in how they treat these babies. Our program, ACT NOW, or Advancing Clinical Trials in Neonatal Opioid Withdrawal, aims to provide concrete guidance for nurses in the NICU treating these infants. One of the studies that we call Eat, Sleep, Console focuses on the abilities of the baby. Our researchers are testing if the ability to eat, sleep, or be consoled increases bonding with the mother and if it reduces time in the hospital, as well as other long-term health outcomes.
In addition to that NOWS program, we’ve also launched the HEALthy Brain and Child Development Study, or HBCD, that seeks to understand the long-term consequences of opioid exposure together with all the other environmental and other factors the baby experiences as they grow up. The hope is that together these studies will inform future prevention and treatment efforts for both mental health and also substance use and addiction.
Tabak: As the surge in heroin use and appearance of fentanyl has taught us, the opioid crisis has ever-changing dynamics. It tells us that we need better prevention strategies. Rebecca, could you share what HEAL is doing about prevention?
Baker: Prevention has always been a core component of the HEAL Initiative in a number of ways. The first is by preventing unnecessary opioid exposures through enhanced and evidence-based pain management. HEAL is supporting research on new small molecules, new devices, new biologic therapeutics that could treat pain and distinct pain conditions without opioids. And we’re also researching and providing guidance for clinicians on strategies for managing pain without medication, including acupuncture and physical therapy. They can often be just as effective and more sustainable.
HEAL is also working to address risky opioid use outside of pain management, especially in high-risk groups. That includes teens and young adults who may be experimenting, people lacking stable housing, patients who are on high-dose opioids for pain management, or they maybe have gone off high-dose opioids but still have them in their possession.
Finally, to prevent overdose we have to give naloxone to the people who need it. The HEALing Communities Study has taken some really innovative approaches to providing naloxone in libraries, on the beach, and places where overdoses are actually happening, not just in medical settings. And I think that will be, in our fight against the overdose crisis, a key tool.
Volkow: Larry, I’d like to add a few words on prevention. There are evidence-based interventions that have been shown to be quite effective for preventing substance use among teenagers and young adults. And yet, they are not implemented. We have evidence-based interventions that work for prevention. We have evidence-based interventions that work for treatment. But we don’t provide the resources for their implementation, nor do we train the personnel that can carry it over.
Science can give us tools, but if we do not partner at the next level for their implementation, those tools do not have the impact they should have. That’s why I always bring up the importance of policy in the implementation phase.
Tabak: Rebecca, the opioid crisis got started with a lack of good options for treating pain. Could you share with us how HEAL’s research efforts are addressing the needs of millions of Americans who experience both chronic pain and opioid use disorder?
Baker: It’s so important to remember people with pain. We can’t let our efforts to combat the opioid crisis make us lose sight of the needs of the millions of Americans with pain. One hundred million Americans experience pain; half of them have severe pain, daily pain, and 20 million have such severe pain that they can’t do things that are important to them in their life, family, job, other activities that bring their life meaning.
HEAL recognizes that these individuals need better options. New non-addictive pain treatments. But as you say, there is a special need for people with a substance use disorder who also have pain. They desperately need new and better options. And so we recently, through the HEAL Initiative, launched a new trials network that couples medication-based treatment for opioid use disorders, so that’s methadone or buprenorphine, with new pain-management strategies such as psychotherapy or yoga in the opioid use disorder treatment setting so that you’re not sending them around to lots of different places. And our hope is that this integrated approach will address some of the fragmented healthcare challenges that often results in poor care for these patients.
My last point would be that some patients need opioids to function. We can’t forget as we make sure that we are limiting risky opioid use that we don’t take away necessary opioids for these patients, and so our future research will incorporate ways of making sure that they receive needed treatment while also preventing them from the risks of opioid use disorder.
Tabak: Rebecca, let me ask you one more question. What do you want the folks here to remember about HEAL?
Baker: HEAL stands for Helping to End Addiction Long-term, and nobody knows more than the people in this room how challenging and important that really is. We’ve heard a little bit about the great promise of our research and some of the advances that are coming through our research pipeline, new treatments, new guidance for clinicians and caregivers. I want everyone to know that we want to work with you. By working together, I’m confident that we will tailor these new advances to meet the individual needs of the patients and populations that we serve.
Tabak: Nora, what would you like to add?
Volkow: This afternoon, I met with two parents who told me the story of how they lost their daughter to an overdose. They showed me pictures of this fantastic girl, along with her drawings. Whenever we think about overdose deaths in America, the sheer number—75,000—can make us indifferent. But when you can focus on one person and feel the love surrounding that life, you remember the value of this work.
Like in COVID, substance use disorders are a painful problem that we’re all experiencing in some way. They may have upset our lives. But they may have brought us together and, in many instances, brought out the best that humans can do. The best, to me, is caring for one another and taking the responsibility of helping those that are most vulnerable. I believe that science has a purpose. And here we have a purpose: to use science to bring solutions that can prevent and treat those suffering from substance use disorders.
Tabak: Thanks to both of you for this enlightening conversation.
 Drug overdose deaths, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, February 22, 2022.
 Trends in drug overdose deaths among US adolescents, January 2010 to June 2021. Friedman J. et al. JAMA. 2022 Apr 12;327(14):1398-1400.
Video: Evening Plenary with NIH’s Lawrence Tabak, Nora Volkow, and Rebecca Baker (Rx and Illicit Drug Summit 2022)
SAMHSA’s National Helpline (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Rockville, MD)
Opioids (National Institute on Drug Abuse/NIH)
Helping to End Addiction Long-term®(HEAL) Initiative (NIH)
Rebecca Baker (HEAL/NIH)
Nora Volkow (NIDA)