NIH readies grants for more research on long-term health effects of COVID-19

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The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is preparing to offer more than $1 billion in grants within three weeks for more research into the long-term health issues after a COVID-19 infection, commonly known as “long COVID-19.”

NIH Director Francis Collins told a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee Wednesday that the agency is moving forward with an “unprecedented” large-scale study on tens of thousands of COVID-19 long-haulers to examine the “prevalence, severity and persistence” of the ongoing health problems after infection.

The agency has already received 273 responses to its February request for research proposals, Collins said, adding he expects intensive laboratory and imaging studies to start by the summer. 

During the hearing focused on long-term COVID-19 symptoms, Collins cited preliminary research that found 10 percent to 30 percent of people who had COVID-19 may develop long-term health issues. With more than 32 million confirmed cases in the U.S. in the past year, that could amount to millions dealing with long COVID-19.

“Some of you have been suffering for more than a year, with no answers, no treatment options, not even a forecast of what your future may hold,” he said. “Some of you have even faced skepticism about whether your symptoms are real. I want to assure you that we at NIH hear you and believe you.”

Symptoms of long COVID-19 include fatigue, brain fog, disturbed sleep, shortness of breath, palpitations, depression, loss of taste and smell and muscle and joint pain, which persist four weeks or more after diagnosis. Initial data shows that older people, women and those who are obese may be at increased risk for long COVID-19, but Collins said more research is needed.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study released last week found that two-thirds of nonhospitalized COVID-19 patients received some kind of new diagnosis up to six months after contracting the virus.

During the hearing, John Brooks, chief medical officer for the CDC’s COVID-19 response, called the phenomenon of long COVID-19 “unprecedented,” noting that “people who recover from the flu or a cold don’t typically make a scheduled visit a month later.”

Minority communities have been disproportionately effected by COVID-19, experiencing higher death rates and case counts.

Officials said they expect data to show these communities disproportionately affected by long COVID-19 as well.

“My fear is that as acute COVID uncovered our nation’s failures in emergency response and equitable health care, long COVID-19 will uncover our failures in fairly treating chronic disease and disability,” subcommittee Chairwoman Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) said during her opening statement. 

Brooks recommended those who believe they may have developed long COVID-19 should seek care from their primary care physician or go to a post-coronavirus clinic for treatment. 

Officials and long COVID-19 patients testified that some of those suffering from long-term symptoms were met with doubt from physicians, making it more difficult to get care.  

“Having this hearing today is probably one of the most important first steps of raising the awareness we need in America,” Brooks said. “And I encourage people to take it seriously when they have someone they know talk about this syndrome. It’s real.”

Tags Anna Eshoo Coronavirus COVID-19 Long Covid long COVID-19 long haulers National Institutes of Health NIH Pandemic Research
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