What we know and what we don’t know, according to experts

We’re in the third year of the pandemic, and experts still know very little about long-term Covid, including how to cure its symptoms.

On July 20 and July 21, the Global Virus Network hosted its first-ever conference dedicated to the science of long-term Covid. There, scientists spoke openly about what is known and what still remains about the mysterious condition.

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

  • How do we define long-term Covid?
  • Would a Covid-19 drug like Paxlovid also treat long-term Covid symptoms?

At this stage, even estimating how many people have contracted the virus is difficult because symptoms vary, said Robert Gallo, co-founder and director of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland. School of Medicine, he was one of the panelists for the conference.

“It changes tomorrow and next week, depending on the criteria you use,” Gallo said. “We haven’t even agreed on how to define it, so it’s difficult.”

What is long-term Covid and how widespread is its impact?

Interestingly, we know that many people develop Covid symptoms long after infection, and data analyzed by the CDC in June showed that 7.5% of adults in the U.S. had long-term Covid markers.

Currently, the agency defines chronic Covid as an illness with long-term effects due to an initial Covid-19 infection. These symptoms, which usually appear long after you test negative for the virus, range from respiratory to nervous.

According to the CDC, people with post-Covid illness typically report the following symptoms:

  • fatigue that interferes with daily activities
  • fever
  • Difficulty breathing
  • cough
  • chest pain
  • brain fog
  • Headache
  • depression or anxiety
  • Muscle pain
  • Changes in the menstrual cycle, etc.

Gallo told CNBC Make It that the versatility of long-term Covid symptoms may be due to how the Covid-19 virus affects the immune system. “You affect the immune system and anything can happen,” he said. “However, it also targets a very wide range of different body cells.”

Last year, the Americans with Disabilities Act classified chronic Covid as a disability because of its debilitating effects on some people.

Can clinical trials help us heal?

An important topic discussed at lengthy Covid meetings is the state of clinical trials. Eric Rubin, editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine and a member of the conference panel, said selecting participants for clinical trials has been difficult due to the wide range of symptoms and no clear definition.

“Without a definition, it’s hard to know who you should turn to to figure out what’s going on,” Rubin said. Starting a clinical trial with a participant who is experiencing very different things can negatively impact the study results. “Trying to decide what you’re going to use as the definition is where everything else starts,” he added.

However, Gallo believes we should still try to conduct clinical trials with what we know now, especially given the neurological effects of this condition. Finding patients may lead researchers to the answers they are looking for.

New survey data analyzed by the CDC was able to determine that women and people aged 50 to 59 were more likely than their peers to experience prolonged COVID-19. Self-reported cases have helped scientists discover that long-term Covid symptoms appear to be relatively mild, but for some people, they can be much more severe.

Gallo added that there was still no indication of what, if any, would provide immunity to the disease. But he believes that once an infection is detected, taking a drug like Paxlovid may be the best way to prevent long-term Covid symptoms. More research is needed to determine this and more about long-term Covid, but scientists are hopeful for the future.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that, given the level of concern about long-term Covid, we’ll get some answers and hopefully some interventions that will help people,” Rubin said.

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