‘We don’t even agree on how to define it yet’: It’s the third year of the pandemic and scientists still know very little about prolonged Covid

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We have entered the third year of the pandemic and experts still know very little about prolonged covid, including how to cure its symptoms.

On July 20-21, the Global Virus Network hosted the first conference dedicated exclusively to the science of prolonged Covid. There, the scientists spoke openly about what is known about the mysterious condition and the questions that remain.

For example, researchers are still looking for answers to two key questions:

  • How do we define long Covid?
  • Will Covid-19 drugs like Paxlovid also treat long-term Covid symptoms?

At this stage, even providing an estimate of how many people have had Covid for a long time is difficult because symptoms vary, says Robert Gallo, co-founder and director of the Institute for Human Virology at the University of Maryland. Faculty of Medicine, who was one of the panelists at the conference.

“It will change tomorrow and next week, and it depends on what criteria you’re using,” says Gallo. “We don’t even agree on how to define it yet, so it’s difficult.”

What is prolonged Covid and how widespread are its effects?

Anecdotally, we know that many people experience symptoms of covid long after infection, and data analyzed by the CDC in June shows that 7.5% of adults in the US have markers of long-term covid.

The agency currently defines long-Covid as a condition that causes long-term effects as a result of an initial Covid-19 infection. These symptoms usually present long after the virus test is negative and range from respiratory to neurological.

According to the CDC, people with post-Covid conditions commonly report symptoms of:

  • Fatigue that interferes with daily activities.
  • Fever
  • labored breathing
  • Cough
  • Chest pain
  • brain fog
  • Headache
  • depression or anxiety
  • Muscle pain
  • Changes in menstrual cycles and more

The versatility of prolonged Covid symptoms is likely due to how the Covid-19 virus affects the immune system, Gallo tells CNBC Make It. “You affect the immune system, and all things can happen,” he says. “But it also targets very different cells in the body.”

Last year, the Americans with Disabilities Act classified prolonged covid as a disability due to its debilitating effects on some people.

Can clinical trials help us find a cure?

A big topic discussed at the long Covid conference was the state of clinical trials. Due to the wide range of symptoms and lack of a clear definition, choosing participants for clinical trials has been a struggle, says Eric Rubin, editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine and a panelist at the conference.

“Without a definition, it’s hard to know who to look at to figure out what’s going on,” says Rubin. Starting a clinical trial with participants experiencing very different things could negatively affect the study’s findings. “Trying to decide what you’re going to use as a definition is kind of a starting point for everything else,” she adds.

But Gallo thinks we still need to try clinical trials with what we know now, especially given the neurological impacts of the condition. And looking at patients could probably lead researchers to the answers they’re looking for.

Recent survey data, analyzed by the CDC, was able to determine that women and people ages 50 to 59 are more likely to experience prolonged covid than their counterparts. Self-reported cases helped scientists discover that long-term symptoms of covid appear to be relatively mild but, for some, can be much more severe.

Still, there’s no indicator of what, if anything, will provide immunity against the condition, Gallo adds. But he believes that taking drugs like Paxlovid once the infection is detected could be the best way to prevent prolonged Covid symptoms. Much more research is required to determine this, and more information about prolonged Covid, but scientists are hopeful for the future.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that given the amount of attention people are paying to COVID in the long run, we’re going to get some answers and hopefully some interventions that help people,” says Rubin.

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