Some Covid-19 patients suffer from shortness of breath, fatigue, headaches and “brain fog” for months to almost a year after their first illness. Now global medical experts are working to better diagnose and treat what they tentatively refer to as “long covid”.
Earlier this week, the World Health Organization hosted a global meeting with “patients, clinicians and other stakeholders” to improve the agency’s understanding of the post-Covid medical condition, also known as Long Covid, WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Friday.
The meeting was the first of many to come. The goal will ultimately be to produce an “agreed clinical description” of the disease so that doctors can diagnose and treat patients effectively, he said. Given the number of people infected with the virus worldwide – nearly 108 million people as of Friday – Tedros warned that many of these persistent symptoms are likely to appear.
“This disease affects patients with severe and mild Covid-19,” Tedros said during a press conference at the agency’s headquarters in Geneva. “Part of the challenge is that long-term Covid patients can have a range of different symptoms that can be persistent or come and go.”
So far, there have been a limited number of studies that will determine what symptoms are most common and how long they might last. The main focus was on people with a serious or fatal illness, not people who have recovered but still report persistent side effects, sometimes referred to as “long distance riders”.
Most Covid patients are believed to recover only weeks after their initial diagnosis, but some have symptoms for six months or even almost a year, medical experts say.
One of the largest global studies on Long Covid, published in early January, found that many people who have persistent illness after infection cannot work full-time six months later. The study, published on MedRxiv and not peer reviewed, interviewed more than 3,700 people, ages 18 to 80, from 56 countries to identify symptoms.
The most common symptoms after six months were fatigue, post-exercise fatigue, and cognitive dysfunction, sometimes called brain fog.
Is that unique to Covid-19?
“We really don’t know what is causing these symptoms. That is a focus of research right now,” said Dr. Allison Navis, a professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, during a call to the Infectious Diseases Society of America on Friday.
“The question that arises is whether this is something that is unique to Covid itself – and it is the Covid virus that is causing these symptoms – or whether this could be part of a general post-viral syndrome,” Navis said, adding, that medical experts see similar long-term symptoms after other viral infections.
Another study, published in the medical journal The Lancet in early January, looked at 1,733 patients discharged from a hospital in Wuhan, China, between January and May last year. Of these patients, 76% reported at least one symptom six months after their first illness. The proportion was higher among women.
“We found that fatigue or muscle weakness, sleep disorders, and anxiety or depression were common even 6 months after symptoms appeared,” the researchers wrote in the study.
They found that symptoms reported months after the Covid-19 diagnosis was consistent with data previously found in follow-up studies of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), a coronavirus.
Post-Covid clinics are going online
Some large medical centers are currently setting up post-Covid clinics to care for patients with persistent symptoms. Navis said her clinic on Mount Sinai, New York treated a “fairly even” distribution of men and women with persistent illness, and the average age of patients was 40 years.
Dr. Kathleen Bell, a professor at the University of Texas’ Southwestern Medical Center, said her hospital’s long-term Covid-19 clinic began last April when a wave of infections hit Italy and New York at the start of the pandemic.
Bell said on the Infectious Diseases Society of America conference call on Friday that a number of professionals are required to staff the clinics because symptoms are uneven, including experts who can treat muscle weakness, heart-related disorders, and cognitive problems in the insane and health Problems after their diagnosis.
“It forces all of us, in many ways, to come together and make sure we have open lines of communication to address all of these issues for patients,” said Bell.
Bell added that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention held a phone call in January with long Covid centers across the country to discuss their model for treating patients.
“I think the CDC is now trying to bring centers together and get some firmer guidelines on it, which is very exciting,” said Bell.
– CNBC’s Sam Meredith contributed to this report.