In a first-of-its-kind study, a team of Australian researchers and clinicians from UNSW Sydney’s Kirby Institute and St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney have discovered an immune profile for long Covid, potentially paving the way for tailored treatment for those suffering ongoing symptoms.
Symptoms of long covid have been found to persist for at least eight months following infection, suggesting that long Covid-19 is very different from other infections.
The researchers analysed multiple samples from 62 patients diagnosed with Covid-19 between April and July 2020. Patient samples were analysed at three, four, and eight months intervals following initial infection, and compared to control groups.
New Kirby research with @SVHSydney published in @Nature Immunology suggests long COVID is very different to other infections. Unvaccinated people with long COVID have a sustained inflammatory response for at least 8 months following their infection @UNSW https://t.co/WccyRJTEHX
— Kirby Institute, UNSW (@KirbyInstitute) January 13, 2022
Senior research associate at the Kirby Institute and co-lead author on the paper, Dr Chansavath Phetsouphanh said the “findings may validate some of the symptoms that people with long COVID experience”.
“We found that there is a significant and sustained inflammation that indicates prolonged activation of the immune system response detectable for at least eight months following initial infection,” he said.
Phetsouphanh and the research team examined blood samples from people with and without long Covid for a variety of “immune biomarkers” and found the body’s immune response kept working to fight the virus long after they had recovered.
“These are biological characteristics which can help us define a medical condition in an accurate and reproducible way. We compared these to people who had not had Covid-19, and we found persistently elevated levels of Type I and Type III interferons, types of protein that cells make in response to the presence of a virus. These interferons generally disappear after an infection clears, but in patients with long COVID we found they were present for an extended period,” he said.
About 30 per cent of unvaccinated people who contracted Covid-19 and were part of the study have experienced some long Covid symptoms. Rick Walters contracted Covid-19 in August 2020 and is part of the study. He is experiencing long Covid symptoms, and was grateful the study validated what he was experiencing.
“I’m glad that the study has confirmed that long Covid is a valid result of Covid-19 infection and just not something in my head. At first, I thought I would get better, but it became apparent that the damage to my lung was permanent, and I became quite anxious,” he said.
“I have had some difficulties adjusting to my current health. Covid-19 should not be taken lightly. I am gradually learning to live with the results.”
Head of Infectious Diseases at St Vincent’s Hospital and Program Head of Vaccine and Therapeutic Research at the Kirby Institute, Professor Gail Matthews said that the research conducted through the study has provided some answers to the mysteries of long Covid and could provide effective treatment options in the future.
“Simply put, when we look carefully at the immune system in people who have had Covid-19 infection, and particularly at those with long Covid, it looks different to what we would expect in healthy individuals,” she said.
“This tells us that there might be something quite unique in the pathophysiology of this disease. The next steps are to apply this new understanding to other COVID-19 variants, and to further research to inform the treatment and management of long Covid.”
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