'We don't understand': scientists have failed to explain the long-term effects of coronavirus
Millions of people around the world are suffering from “long COVID”
A U.S. study found that one in ten people who recovered from Omicron suffer from “long-term COVID.” According to a study of nearly 10,000 Americans that aims to help unravel the mysterious disease, about 10% of people appear to have long-term COVID after being infected with an omicron, lower than at the beginning of the pandemic. And while scientists state that they cannot properly understand what the “long covid” is.
Initial results from a National Institutes of Health (NIH) study highlight a dozen symptoms that are most characteristic of long-term COVID, a general term for sometimes debilitating health problems that can last for months or years even after a mild case of COVID-19.
According to the Associated Press, millions of people around the world are suffering from “long COVID” with dozens of symptoms, including fatigue and brain fog. Scientists still don't know what causes the disease, why it only affects some people, how to treat it - or even how best to diagnose it. A better definition of the condition is key to the research that provides these answers.
"Sometimes I hear people say, 'Oh, everyone's a little tired,'" says one of the study's authors, Dr. Leora Horwitz of NYU Langone Health. "No, there's something special about people who have long COVID." and that's important to know."
The new study, published Thursday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, includes more than 8,600 adults who had COVID-19 at various times during the pandemic, comparing them to another 1,100 who were not infected.
By some estimates, about one in three COVID-19 patients had a long period of COVID. This is similar to the NIH study participants who reported the disease before the Omicron variant began rolling out in the US in December 2021. That’s when the study began, and the researchers noted that people who already had long-term COVID symptoms might be more likely to enroll.
But some 2,230 patients first contracted the coronavirus after the study began, allowing them to report symptoms in real time, and only about 10% experienced long-term symptoms after six months.
Previous studies have shown that the risk of long-term spread of COVID has declined since Omicron was introduced; its "descendants" are still spreading.
The more important question is how to identify and help those who are already ill with “long covid”.
The new study focused on a dozen symptoms that can help identify long-term COVID: fatigue; brain fog; dizziness; gastrointestinal symptoms; cardiopalmus; sexual problems; loss of smell or taste; thirst; chronic cough; chest pain; worsening of symptoms after physical activity and abnormal movements.
The researchers assigned scores to symptoms in an effort to establish a threshold that could eventually help ensure that similar patients are included in studies on possible long-term treatment for COVID, in an NIH study or elsewhere, to compare apples to apples.
Dr. Horwitz emphasizes that doctors should not use this list to diagnose someone with long-term COVID - it's just a potential research tool. Patients can have one of these symptoms or many others — or other symptoms not listed — and still suffer the long-term effects of the coronavirus.
Everyone is doing research on long-term COVID, but “we don’t even know what that means,” admits Dr. Horwitz.