“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.
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.
We are in the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, and across the world, most restrictions have lifted, and society is trying to get back to “normal.” But for many people—potentially millions globally—there is no getting back to normal just yet.
They are still living with the long-term effects of a COVID-19 infection, known as the post-acute sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 infection (PASC), including Long COVID. These people continue to experience debilitating fatigue, shortness of breath, pain, difficulty sleeping, racing heart rate, exercise intolerance, gastrointestinal and other symptoms, as well as cognitive problems that make it difficult to perform at work or school.
This is a public health issue that is in desperate need of answers. Research is essential to address the many puzzling aspects of Long COVID and guide us to effective responses that protect the nation’s long-term health.
For the past two years, NIH’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), and my National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) along with several other NIH institutes and the office of the NIH Director, have been leading NIH’s Researching COVID to Enhance Recovery (RECOVER) initiative, a national research program to understand PASC.
The initiative studies core questions such as why COVID-19 infections can have lingering effects, why new symptoms may develop, and what is the impact of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, on other diseases and conditions? Answering these fundamental questions will help to determine the underlying biologic basis of Long COVID. The answers will also help to tell us who is at risk for Long COVID and identify therapies to prevent or treat the condition.
The RECOVER initiative’s wide scope of research is also unprecedented. It is needed because Long COVID is so complex, and history indicates that similar post infectious conditions have defied definitive explanation or effective treatment. Indeed, those experiencing Long COVID report varying symptoms, making it highly unlikely that a single therapy will work for everyone, underscoring the need to pursue multiple therapeutic strategies.
To understand Long COVID fully, hundreds of RECOVER investigators are recruiting more than 17,000 adults (including pregnant people) and more than 18,000 children to take part in cohort studies. Hundreds of enrolling sites have been set up across the country. An autopsy research cohort will also provide further insight into how COVID-19 affects the body’s organs and tissues.
In addition, researchers will analyze electronic health records from millions of people to understand how Long COVID and its symptoms change over time. The RECOVER initiative is also utilizing consistent research protocols across all the study sites. The protocols have been carefully developed with input from patients and advocates, and they are designed to allow for consistent data collection, improve data sharing, and help to accelerate the pace of research.
From the very beginning, people suffering from Long COVID have been our partners in RECOVER. Patients and advocates have contributed important perspectives and provided valuable input into the master protocols and research plans.
Now, with RECOVER underway, individuals with Long COVID, their caregivers, and community members continue to serve a critical role in the Initiative. The National Community Engagement Group (NCEG) has been established to make certain that RECOVER meets the needs of all people affected by Long COVID. The RECOVER Patient and Community Engagement Strategy outlines all the approaches that RECOVER is using to engage with and gather input from individuals impacted by Long COVID.
The NIH recently made more than 40 awards to improve understanding of the underlying biology and pathology of Long COVID. There have already been several important findings published by RECOVER scientists.
For example, in a recent study published in the journal Lancet Digital Health, RECOVER investigators used machine learning to comb through electronic health records to look for signals that may predict whether someone has Long COVID . As new findings, tools, and technologies continue to emerge that help advance our knowledge of the condition, the RECOVER Research Review (R3) Seminar Series will provide a forum for researchers and our partners with up-to-date information about Long COVID research.
It is important to note that post-viral conditions are not a new concept. Many, but not all, of the symptoms reported in Long COVID, including fatigue, post-exertional malaise, chronic musculoskeletal pain, sleep disorders, postural orthostatic tachycardia (POTS), and cognitive issues, overlap with myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS).
ME/CFS is a serious disease that can occur following infection and make people profoundly sick for decades. Like Long COVID, ME/CFS is a heterogenous condition that does not affect everybody in the same way, and the knowledge gained through research on Long COVID may also positively impact the understanding, treatment, and prevention of POTS, ME/CFS, and other chronic diseases.
Unlike other post-viral conditions, people who experience Long COVID were all infected by the same virus—albeit different variants—at a similar point in time. This creates a unique opportunity for RECOVER researchers to study post-viral conditions in real-time.
The opportunity enables scientists to study many people simultaneously while they are still infected to monitor their progress and recovery, and to try to understand why some individuals develop ongoing symptoms. A better understanding of the transition from acute to chronic disease may offer an opportunity to intervene, identify who is at risk of the transition, and develop therapies for people who experience symptoms long after the acute infection has resolved.
The RECOVER initiative will soon announce clinical trials, leveraging data from clinicians and patients in which symptom clusters were identified and can be targeted by various interventions. These trials will investigate therapies that are indicated for other non-COVID conditions and novel treatments for Long COVID.
Through extensive collaboration across the multiple NIH institutes and offices that contribute to the RECOVER effort, our hope is critical answers will emerge soon. These answers will help us to recognize the full range of outcomes and needs resulting from PASC and, most important, enable many people to make a full recovery from COVID-19. We are indebted to the over 10,000 subjects who have already enrolled in RECOVER. Their contributions and the hard work of the RECOVER investigators offer hope for the future to the millions still suffering from the pandemic.
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 18th in the series of NIH IC guest posts that will run until a new permanent NIH director is in place.