Researchers in the Pacific Northwest have launched a new clinical effort to study long-COVID, a collection of symptoms such as brain fog and fatigue that can plague some people months after initial infection.
The Institute for Systems Biology (ISB) will lead a regional research consortium that will recruit more than 900 patients throughout the greater Pacific Northwest for the new study. Recruitment of patients has begun at the University of Washington School of Medicine and Swedish. Providence is also a key partner.
The ISB-led research team is part of a massive research effort sponsored by the US National Institutes of Health, the RECOVER initiative, which stands for REsearching COVID to Enhance Recovery.
More than 30 research teams nationwide are part of the RECOVER initiative, which aims to assess the prevalence of long-COVID, its risk factors, effects and underlying biological mechanisms. Researchers will collect clinical information and correlate it with data from laboratory tests with the aim of identifying and developing treatments.
Long-COVID is a condition that has no clear cause, said James Heath, president of the ISB and principal investigator of the Northwest research consortium.
“You’re trying to look at an evolving chronic condition – when all hell breaks loose because you get COVID,” Heath said. “And you’ve got this heterogeneous set of symptoms at the end,” he said, ranging from losing the smell to impairment in movement.
By identifying the biological drivers of long COVID in the body, researchers may find that the condition has simpler underpinnings, Heath said. “What are the simple and robust lessons that one can learn that can be harnessed to help patients?”
Some study participants will be enrolled at their initial COVID-19 diagnosis and their biological samples will be banked over time. That’s an approach Heath and his collaborators took with a recent smaller study, published in Cell.
That study assessed several hundred patients, tracking their symptoms and analyzing their blood for everything from immune cell composition to antibody types. The researchers identified four factors present at initial diagnosis associated with long COVID, including Type 2 diabetes. In some affected people, the researchers also found re-activation of a virus normally dormant in the body, Epstein Barr Virus.
The new ISB-led study will take a similar approach and will link its data up with national findings. The study also has an emphasis on recruiting patients from under-served populations in the Pacific Northwest, said UW lead investigator on the study Helen Chu, an associate professor of medicine in a statement.
“I’ve seen the devastating effects that long COVID can have, many weeks or months after SARS-CoV-2 infection,” said Jason Goldman, an infectious disease physician at Swedish in the statement. “If you are a patient who had COVID-19, we look forward to listening to your perspectives and experiences with SARS-CoV-2 or long COVID.”
Estimates vary of the prevalence of long-COVID. One recent analysis of 57 studies found that more than half of the COVID-19 survivors, on average, had at least one symptom at 2-to-5 months. The analysis of prevalence, however, involved mainly hospitalized, unvaccinated individuals earlier in the pandemic.
Ultimately most people’s symptoms resolve, Heath said. But he estimates that about 10% have longer-term problems persisting from six months out to a year, and others struggle longer.