Shalonda Williams-Hampton, 32, has her blood drawn by Northwell Health medical staff for the antibody tests that determine if a person has immunity to coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at the First Baptist Cathedral of Westbury in Westbury, New York, has developed. 05/13/2020.
Shannon Stapleton | Reuters
“Long Covid” – the name for persistent symptoms that millions have reported after being infected with Covid-19 – is here to “haunt us for a while,” according to a scientist studying the effects of the disease. But there is hope that a diagnostic test may be developed soon.
Symptoms of long-term Covid vary, but may include persistent tiredness, shortness of breath, memory loss or difficulty concentrating (referred to as “brain fog”), insomnia, chest pain, or dizziness. However, it remains a poorly understood condition and scientists do not yet know why some people continue to have some symptoms after Covid and others do not.
Data recently collected in a UK study suggested that millions of people could be affected by long-term Covid following coronavirus infection. To date, more than 187 million cases of Covid have been registered worldwide. Given this number, the potential number of people who could be affected by long-term Covid is significant.
Danny Altmann, a professor of immunology at Imperial College London, told CNBC on Tuesday that “the data (on long Covid) is coming through thick and fast and what they say of the 170 million people on the planet who are infected with this virus that 10-20% of them will have long-term persistent symptoms. “
“What you see are people with wheezing or shortness of breath, fatigue and brain fog and this long list of about 50 symptoms. So it’s really a thing and a thing that will haunt us for a while. It’s a price we’re paying we have to and we have to look at people’s lives and jobs and health care for them, “he told CNBC’s Squawk Box Europe.
Altmann found that data on long Covid “were very reproducible all over the world, regardless of whether you are looking in China or Bangladesh or France or the USA”.
Scientists consider organ damage due to a Covid infection, problems with the immune system after an infection or reactivation of the virus as possible causes of long Covid; or maybe a combination of factors.
A UK study published last October identified the main factors that increase the likelihood of patients suffering from the coronavirus over the long term, including age, weight and gender. But further research gives hope that there may soon be a test to diagnose the poorly understood, but often life-changing condition.
Tests for long Covid?
Altmann from Imperial College is part of a team that has been researching Covid and analyzing blood samples from those who have it to find the cause.
In a preview of their early results on Monday evening on the BBC’s Panorama program, the team said it found that irregular antibodies were common in blood samples from people with long-term Covid.
Usually the immune system creates a protective response by making antibodies to fight a virus, but sometimes it goes wrong and “autoantibodies” – sometimes called “rogue antibodies” – are produced that attack healthy cells.
Altmann’s researchers found that such autoantibodies were widespread in people with long Covid, although only a few blood samples were analyzed in the pilot study. However, autoantibodies were found in comparative blood samples from people who recovered quickly from the virus or who never tested positive for Covid-19.
Still, the detection of such irregular antibodies in people with long Covid could pave the way for a simple diagnostic test that analyzes a person’s blood. If autoantibodies are found, long Covid could potentially be diagnosed; and this, in turn, could help create treatment and recovery plans for patients.
Speaking to the BBC, Altmann said the results could not yet be called a breakthrough, but they were “very exciting progress”.
“One of the things that we know with absolute certainty is that Covid can result from any type of infection for a long time: asymptomatic, light or severe,” he told Panorama.
“The pilot data we have says that you can really see different patterns of autoimmunity in people with long Covid,” he said. Although more research needs to be done, Altmann said he was optimistic that there could be a simple blood test that can diagnose long Covid within six months.