Long COVID-19 is like other post-viral syndromes, health chief argues

Long COVID is real, as are the experiences of those who suffer lingering symptoms after a bout of the disease. But according to new data, it may not be a unique condition. At an upcoming conference, a team including the Chief Health Officer of the State of Queensland, Australia, will present evidence indicating that there is no substantial difference between long COVID-19 and other post-viral syndromes.

What does the study say?

The team collected data from more than 5,000 Queenslanders aged 18 and over, all of whom had respiratory symptoms that necessitated a PCR test for COVID-19 and influenza. Within the group, just under half had a confirmed positive COVID test result. The others were split between those who tested positive for flu (995 people) and those who tested negative for both infections (1,718).

The first tests were conducted in May and June 2022, around the peak of Australia’s flu season.

The participants were then followed a year later and asked to complete a questionnaire about any persistent symptoms they experienced. A total of 16 percent of respondents were still experiencing ongoing problems at the time, with 3.6 percent reporting a “moderate to severe” impact on their daily lives.

When analyzing the data, the scientists controlled for factors such as age, gender and First Nation status, all of which could influence the likelihood of long-term COVID or post-viral syndrome. They found that there was no significant difference in the rate of persistent symptoms between those who had confirmed COVID-19, those who had the flu and those who had a respiratory illness of unknown cause.

In other words, they suggest that you are just as likely to have persistent problems after the flu or a cold as you are after COVID-19.

“In healthcare systems with highly vaccinated populations, COVID may have long emerged as a distinct and serious disease due to the high numbers of COVID-19 cases during the pandemic,” said Dr. John Gerrard, Queensland’s Chief Health Officer, said in a statement. “These findings underline the importance of comparing post-COVID-19 outcomes with those after other respiratory infections, and of further research into post-viral syndromes.”

What could these findings mean?

Many would argue that post-viral syndromes are a neglected area of ​​research, to the detriment of patients. The experiences of those who developed long-term COVID-19, especially in the early days of the pandemic when the condition was not yet formally recognized, brought renewed attention to the plight of people with conditions similar to ME/CFS (myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome). , Many of them have been advocating for better awareness and treatment options for decades.

“[T]The problem is that there are millions and millions of very sick, very debilitated individuals with these diseases and it takes a moonshot [because] These diseases have historically been at the end of the line for funding,” said Billy Hanlon, director of advocacy and outreach for the Minnesota ME/CFS Alliance, speaking to Amsterdam News.

Hanlon developed ME/CFS in 2017 after a seemingly minor viral infection, a story that will be familiar to many long-term COVID sufferers, whose first encounter with the virus is often mild.

To the extent that the new research from Queensland underlines the need to consider long COVID-19 as part of a broader umbrella of post-viral conditions that require greater support and research funding, some other experts have expressed agreement.

“This summary reveals an important finding: approximately 4 percent of people, regardless of the virus they contract, may experience persistent health problems after infection, resulting in chronic disability. This implies that Long COVID is not an isolated condition, but rather part of a broader spectrum of post-viral syndromes,” said Marie-Claire Seeley, a clinical nurse consultant, who was not directly involved in the study.

However, others have questioned some elements of the methodology and criticized one of the research team’s more controversial suggestions: that the term “long COVID” is itself useless and could, as Gerrard put it, cause “unnecessary fear.” .

Professor Jeremy Nicholson of Murdoch University argued that without more detailed patient data it is not possible to claim that COVID is “indistinguishable” from other post-viral syndromes in the long term.

“The absence of evidence is different from evidence of absence – so the authors’ claim that Long COVID is the same as influenza-related post-viral syndrome is not proven, even if Long COVID is indeed a post-viral syndrome (which it is). ),” said Nicholson.

Professor Philip Britton, member of the Long COVID Australia Collaboration, commented: “There are likely reasons why persistent symptoms after COVID are not more common in this Queensland cohort than after other viruses, including the predominantly vaccinated cohort and the high frequency of Omicron- variants. These factors are recognized by the authors.”

“It is because of these specific factors and because of the inherent limitations of the research methodology itself that their conclusion that it ‘time to stop using terms like ‘long COVID’ is overdone and possibly useless. For a long time, COVID has been a global phenomenon, recognized by the WHO.”

Today, March 15, 2024, is the second annual International Long COVID Awareness Day, with the theme “Confront Long COVID.” In the run-up to the conference presentation and likely for some time afterwards, this research will provoke disagreement and debate; but, as Britton noted, the fact that people are talking about the condition at all is a good thing.

“Studies like this are reassuring that most people will recover from COVID without long-term effects and furthermore, with vaccination and viral evolution, the number of people experiencing long COVID will likely decrease over time. This is good news!” said Britton.

“I welcome the results of this study given the lack of published research from Australia in this area.”

The study will be presented at the European Congress of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases 2024.

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