In the last quarter of 2021, doctors and scientists observed that some people who were previously infected with COVID-19 had lingering symptoms longer than three months after the onset of COVID-19 infection. Coined as “long COVID,” the phenomenon affected about 30% of adults and 4% of children.
Recently, the United Kingdom’s Office of National Statistics (ONS) released the nation’s COVID-19 data with an analysis of long COVID, which showed that it affected 1.33 million people in the U.K., most of who are 35 to 69 years of age. On a global scale, long COVID affects over 100 million people, according to the World Health Organization.
These findings led scientists and drugmakers to begin exploring treatments to target and alleviate the disease. Among these include reputable pharmaceutical companies GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, Vir Biotechnology, Roche, and Humanigen.
Research Hurdle: Defining Long COVID
Long COVID is an umbrella term that encompasses a wide range of different symptoms. Pharmaceutical companies will need to address its 200 associated afflictions, among which include brain fog, chest pain, dizziness, fatigue, and heart palpitations. More severe cases can exhibit diabetes and heart failure.
While researchers are making progress in creating new drugs or identifying existing medicines for long COVID, the struggle is in defining it. According to post-viral diseases expert, Dr. Amy Proal, defining COVID-19 is a challenge because of its wide scope, but scientists are currently leaning into specific underlying causes, including:
- Autoimmune response causing the immune system to attack its own cells
- Damage from the original infection
- Dysregulated immune response causing excess inflammation
- Lingering virus reservoirs
Progressing Research on Long COVID
London’s University College is spearheading the search for long COVID treatments, set to begin the testing of four drugs, namely colchicine, famotidine, loratadine, and Johnson and Johnson’s Xarelto (rivaroxaban). These drugs will be tested on 4,500 long COVID patients.
The goal of the study is to identify if these generic drugs can be viable treatments for long COVID symptoms such as blood clots and inflammation. Simultaneously, the researchers are hopeful that the tests will help them determine the underlying cause of ongoing COVID-19 symptoms.
Other research centers are also beginning preliminary studies for long COVID treatments, including:
- Axcella Therapeutics, who is working with the University of Oxford to test a drug to potentially target liver disease
- Puretech Health, who is experimenting with a pulmonary fibrosis treatment to prevent lung scarring caused by COVID
- University of Washington and Fred Hutchinson COVID Clinical Research Center, who are collaborating to test treatments for long COVID symptoms of fatigue.
- Berlin Cures Holding AG, who is in the first stage of testing an autoimmune drug for addressing heart failure.
While the road ahead is hazy, scientists are hopeful that current ongoing research to find treatments for long COVID symptoms will yield drugs and medications that will help patients' lives get back to normal.