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Long COVID is real, and many real questions remain


Predicting long COVID

In a study getting attention, researchers identified four early things linked to greater chances that someone with COVID-19 will have long-term effects: type 2 diabetes at the time of diagnosis, the presence of specific autoantibodies, unusual levels of SARS-CoV-2 RNA in the blood, and signs of the Epstein-Barr virus in the blood.

The study, published in Cell, followed 309 people 2-3 months after COVID-19.

“That’s important work, but it’s early work,” Dr. Bhadelia said. “I think we still have a while to go in terms of understanding the mechanism of long COVID.”

Unexpected patients getting long COVID care

“We are seeing different populations than we all expected to see when this pandemic first started,” Dr. Bell said.

Instead of seeing primarily patients who had severe COVID-19, “the preponderance of people that we’re seeing in long COVID clinics are people who are enabled, were never hospitalized, and have what people might call mild to moderate cases of coronavirus infection,” she said.

Also, instead of just older patients, people of all ages are seeking long COVID care.

One thing that appears more certain is a lack of diversity in people seeking care at long COVID clinics nationwide.

“Many of us who have long COVID specialty clinics will tell you that we are tending to see fairly educated, socioeconomically stable population in these clinics,” Dr. Bell said. “We know that based on the early statistics of who’s getting COVID and having significant COVID that we may not be seeing those populations for follow-up.”

Is an autoinflammatory process to blame?

It remains unclear if a hyperinflammatory response is driving persistent post–COVID-19 symptoms. Children and some adults have developed multisystem inflammatory conditions associated with COVID-19, for example.

There is a signal, and “I think there is enough data now to show something does happen,” Dr. Bhadelia said. “The question is, how often does it happen?”

Spending time in critical care, even without COVID-19, can result in persistent symptoms after a hospital stay, such as acute respiratory distress syndrome. Recovery can take time because being in an ICU is “basically the physiologically equivalent of a car crash,” Dr. Bhadelia said. “So you’re recovering from that, too.”

Dr. Bell agreed. “You’re not only recovering from the virus itself, you’re recovering from intubation, secondary infections, secondary lung conditions, perhaps other organ failure, and prolonged bed rest. There are so many things that go into that, that it’s a little bit hard to sort that out from what long COVID is and what the direct effects of the virus are.”

Also a research opportunity

“I hate to call it this, but we’ve never had an opportunity [where] we have so many people in such a short amount of time with the same viral disorder,” Dr. Bell said. “We also have the technology to investigate it. This has never happened.

“SARS-CoV-2 is not the only virus. This is just the only one we’ve gotten whacked with in such a huge quantity at one time,” she said.

What researchers learn now about COVID-19 and long COVID “is a model that’s going to be able to be applied in the future to infectious diseases in general,” Dr. Bell predicted.

How long will long COVID last?

The vast majority of people with long COVID will get better over time, given enough support and relief of their symptoms, Dr. Bell said.

Type 2 diabetes, preexisting pulmonary disease, and other things could affect how long it takes to recover from long COVID, she said, although more evidence is needed.

“I don’t think at this point that anyone can say how long this long COVID will last because there are a variety of factors,” Dr. Bell said.

A version of this article first appeared on


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