The future of long COVID-19 has societal and financial implications

There may be multiple causes for long COVID-19 symptoms.
There may be multiple causes for long COVID-19 symptoms. Photo credit Getty Images

SAN FRANCISCO (KCBS RADIO) – Earlier this week, the Biden administration released two long-awaited reports, both focused on the understanding and treatment of long COVID-19.

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The phenomenon has been reported on since nearly the beginning of the pandemic, but it's still difficult to understand, both what it means and why it happens.

"We're finally honing down to a pretty standard definition – of people who have persistent symptomatology after having an episode of COVID-19 that goes on for at least two or three months afterward," Jon Swartzberg, infectious disease expert and Clinical Professor Emeritus at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, told KCBS Radio's Melissa Culross and Eric Thomas on Friday's "Ask an Expert."

It doesn't matter how severe the initial COVID-19 infection is, people with mild or even asymptomatic cases can develop long COVID-19 later on.

Post-viral syndromes are not new. With influenza, people can sometimes not regain their normal energy levels for six to eight weeks after recovering. But COVID-19's version is a different story, "where people continue to have symptomatology in a variety of different kinds of symptoms that persist much longer than that," he said.

The new reports from the Biden administration highlight the need for not only more research and scientific exploration of this issue, but also for funding to back it up. "It's been very frustrating up until really the late spring, there hasn't been a lot of NIH funding for these studies that we really need," said Swartzberg. "Now that's coming through."

There is likely going to be an influx of new studies coming out over the next several months, he said, as the results from the investments made in the early spring are starting to come to fruition.

In six months to a year from now, it's possible that there will be a much better understanding of COVID-19 than there is at the moment, which will help better understand how to treat it. "It may not be an it," said Swartzberg. "What I mean by that is that there may be multiple causes."

One person may have long COVID-19 because the virus may have damaged their nervous system, others may have persistent symptoms because their inflammatory response damaged blood vessels, while others may have persistent symptoms for reasons completely unknown.

"There may be a variety of causes for people having persistent symptomatology and lumping them all together with this term long COVID-19 may not be the most fruitful way of understanding what causes it and therefore how we can intervene," he said.

One such example is a study of people who have a higher risk of blood clots or heart attack a year from having COVID-19, which could be effectively treated, he said.

Other studies will focus more on figuring out how many people are likely to get long COVID-19, with a recent one from the Netherlands showing that one out of eight people who get COVID-19 develop persistent symptoms.

This type of research is important as it will factor into long-term planning years down the line. "We'll have to plan financially for this as a society," said Swartzberg. "How much will we need to devote to treating people who have persistent symptomatology."

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