"We learn from history that we learn nothing from history."
--George Bernard Shaw
Let’s hope GBS is wrong about what we learn from the recent pandemic. As it recedes in our rear view mirrors, scientists are looking to all the data and information collected to retrospectively see what we learned about this new virus and disease. This is especially true for that totally unexpected disease phenomenon called “long-COVID.” As we became aware that some COVID survivors continued to suffer from a strange constellation of symptoms, referred to as long COVID, I wrote in these pages about what that affliction entailed, and what we were seeing and discovering about it. You can find several other blog posts on that topic by looking under “long COVID” in the "Categories" listed to the side of this post.
Long COVID was particularly difficult to study since, by definition, it lasts months, maybe even years in some people. That means that discerning how it manifests itself, and how to effectively treat it would take months to flesh out. We have gleaned a bit about that and also have identified areas we need to look at more closely in order to fully understand this part of the disease.
A Scottish study of about 100,000 participants began while the pandemic fulminated, and the results of that study are just being released. The study helps clarify how to diagnose long COVID, which earlier had vexed physicians who had no idea what they were looking at. Long COVID presented doctors with a hodge-podge of seemingly unrelated symptoms—was it a single disease? Different disease manifestations? Psychosomatic? What it then was was a head scratcher. The Scottish study helps confirm that it is a real COVID-associated problem, and the most common symptoms include breathlessness, palpitations, chest pain and “brain fog” or reduced mental acuity. We also learn from the study that the risks of acquiring long COVID is greater in women, older people and economically disadvantaged people. Also, people already dealing with other physical and mental health problems, such as respiratory problems or, surprisingly, depression, are more prone to long COVID. Why is that? The study also found that 1 in 20 people had not recovered up to 18 months after coming down with COVID. It also reported that people with asymptomatic infections were unlikely to suffer long-term effects, which helped confirm what we expected, that it probably is not the virus that causes long COVID, but the culprit is some people’s immune response to the virus. Who are those people susceptible to long COVID, and what is different about their immune response? It also seems that vaccination protects a bit against long COVID, but not as much as previously thought. But, this observation complicates things. The vaccine is designed to stimulate an anti-virus immune response without the risk attendant to an infection. Why doesn't this immune response cause long COVID symptoms like the immune response to the actual infection? Basically, how it all works still is not well known, but that bit of new information scientists are gleaming from the data moves us gradually closer to finding out.
Looking at other data collected since the pandemic reared its ugly head, the WHO estimates that about 10-20% of COVID survivors have lasting symptoms that reduce their quality of life to varying degrees.
The Washington Post reports that somewhere between 7-23 million Americans currently suffer from long COVID. One million of these are unable to work. People are not dying from long COVID, but they often are considerably impaired and that makes them heavy consumers of expensive medical care, and often unable to work at full capacity, which adds to the personal and social costs of the chronic complication.
Anthony Fauci, in an interview with The Guardian, cautions that even though COVID deaths and hospitalizations are declining, it is premature to declare victory over COVID since we continue to deal with the insidious chronic sequelae of the disease. Furthermore, all indications suggest that COVID will be a recurring problem for the world and as it regularly sweeps across the globe, it will continue to create new cases of long COVID. This means that we still need to remain vigilant to avoid the virus when possible, and to make sure that vaccinations are effective and available to the population. Other therapies continue to be explored, but, unlike, antibiotics that fight bacteria, safe anti-viral drugs are very hard to develop because they often come with too extreme side effects.
Continued research into the virus and disease by medical scientists, and further examination of the pandemic history by epidemiologists hopefully will lead to a better understanding of the causes of long COVID, how to more definitively diagnose it, and ultimately how to effectively treat, or even prevent it. Toward these ends, Fauci’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases recently launched a $1.15 billion initiative to achieve these goals. The CDC also recently began its own major study of the problem.
Stay tuned for changes in how we deal with the virus and with long COVID as we learn more about it. That is how science works.