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A new study suggests it may be possible to test for long COVID, offering evidence for millions of sufferers that their condition is real.
Long COVID is commonly characterized as symptoms and conditions that continue or develop after a COVID-19 infection, with “persistent, varying, and potentially disabling health impacts,” according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Until now, many people who continue suffering the effects of COVID long after the acute infection resolves have been treated by doctors as if the condition is psychosomatic, or “all in their head,” with symptoms brought on by psychological factors like depression or anxiety.
Researchers from Yale School of Medicine and and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai compared 271 blood samples from people in three general groups: those who met the current diagnostic criteria for Long COVID, those who had COVID-19 and recovered, and those who showed no signs of COVID-19 infection.
They found that Long COVID patients showed “clear differences in immune and hormone function,” suggesting a blood test could be created to detect biomarkers of the condition.
The study was published Monday in the journal Nature.
“These findings are important — they can inform more sensitive testing for long COVID patients and personalized treatments for long COVID that have, until now, not had a proven scientific rationale,” Principal Investigator David Putrino, Professor of Rehabilitation and Human Performance and Director of the Abilities Research Center at Icahn Mount Sinai, said in a statement.
“This work is so exciting because it is one of the first to show us clear, measurable differences in blood biomarkers of people with long COVID compared with people who recovered fully from an acute infection and a group of people who have never been infected with SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19). This is a decisive step forward in the development of valid and reliable blood testing protocols for long COVID.,” Putrino said.
According to researchers, lasting symptoms include cognitive impairment or “brain fog,” extreme fatigue, shortness of breath, and chronic pain.
The study’s authors used machine learning analyses to identify which biomarkers in patients’ blood samples were most closely associated with a Long COVID diagnosis. The algorithm was able to differentiate between people with and without Long COVID with 96% accuracy, according to the study.
Long COVID patients’ blood indicated immune and hormonal dysfunction, with biomarkers indicating abnormal T cell activity, significant reductions in cortisol levels, and the reactivation of multiple latent viruses, including the Epstein-Barr virus and other herpesviruses.
“These findings show us that people with long COVID are living with a disease process that is observable using the blood testing protocols laid out in the study, but also varies from patient to patient depending on their specific medical history,” Putrino said.
“This means that physicians must listen to their patients and perform a wide variety of physiological and lab tests, while adopting a highly personalized approach to the medical management of long COVID. There is no ‘silver bullet’ for treating long COVID, because it is an illness that infiltrates complex systems such as the immune and hormonal regulation. Complex illnesses require complex treatment solutions and we need more rapid research to better understand long COVID and discover new and promising therapies,” Putrino said.
According to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some 6% of adults in the U.S. had Long COVID symptoms lasting more than three months after infection, as of June 2023, down from 7.5% in June 2022.
The Department of Health and Human Services last week announced nine “first of their kind” grants to support Long COVID clinics, to “expand access and care, develop, and implement new or improved care delivery models, foster best practices for Long COVID management, and support the primary care community in Long COVID education.”
Each grant is worth $1 million per year for up to five years, amounting to a total of $45 million.
TMX contributed to this article.