A blood test to diagnose long Covid patients could be ready within just six months, scientists say.
Researchers have found survivors left with lingering symptoms have an unusual pattern of antibodies in their blood.
It raises the prospect that sufferers of the poorly-understood condition could soon be spotted through a simple test. No diagnostic test or cure currently exists.
Researchers say patients can find it hard to convince GPs they are really suffering from long-Covid symptoms, such as fatigue and headaches.
Little is known about long-Covid — an umbrella term for symptoms that last for more than 12 weeks after being infected.
Antibody tests are not yet widely available in the UK, as they are only free for front line workers and people taking part in clinical trials. The current tests work by checking for antibodies in peoples blood, which are made when they get an infection to help fight it off. If people have Covid antibodies, it is likely they have had the virus before and may have some degree of infection against catching it again. Pictured: a paramedic in Birmingham last month, holding a test tube that will be used to take a blood sample for an antibody test
Monthly vaccine doses will be offered to long Covid sufferers to help more than 1million Britons beat the illness
Thousands of long Covid sufferers are set to be offered monthly vaccine doses in an effort to beat the debilitating illness – after reports that patients can make a dramatic recovery after a jab.
More than one million Britons are said to be suffering from long Covid, with studies suggesting 400,000 have been hit by symptoms for more than a year.
This will be the first drug trial of a long Covid treatment.
In the first stage of the landmark study, severely affected patients will be offered two additional vaccine doses.
Dr David Strain of Exeter University, who will lead the trial, has surveyed more than 900 long Covid patients, of whom more than half saw their symptoms improve after the first dose.
Dr Strain said: ‘Many patients saw a dramatic improvement within days of their jab.
‘Their fatigue disappeared. They were able to walk further without feeling breathlessness.’
It is thought around 20 per cent of coronavirus survivors will suffer lingering effects, such as fatigue, headaches and difficulties breathing.
Hundreds of thousands of Britons have been left battling such symptoms for over a year, according to official estimates.
Middle-aged women appear to be most at risk.
Imperial College London researchers compared the blood of dozens of patients for the study.
They found long-Covid sufferers had certain auto-antibodies not present in patients who recovered quickly from the virus or never had it.
Auto-antibodies are proteins produced by the immune system that cause the body to attack its own organs.
They differ to standard antibodies, which are made to fight off infections such as Covid.
The researchers will now carry out more detailed studies, with the hope of getting a test to market.
Professor Danny Altmann, who leads the team at Imperial, told BBC Panorama: ‘I’m famously optimistic.
‘So I’d hope that within six months we’d have a simple blood test that you could get from your GP.
‘That, I think, could have quite a big impact for people who don’t feel they have managed to convince their GP or accessed specialist care because instead of being my word against yours, it has a diagnostic test.’
He warned there may be tens of thousands more long Covid cases once restrictions are eased in England next week. Vaccines aren’t perfect and millions could still get infected.
Professor Altmann said: ‘One of the things we know for absolute certain is that long Covid can ensue from any form of infection — asymptomatic, mild, severe.
‘So if we’re heading into a phase of 100,000 cases per day, in the coming months and we’re saying that 10-20 per cent of all infections can result in long-Covid, I can see no certainty that we’re not brewing those long-Covid cases despite having a vaccinated population.’
Susie Farrelly, a nurse who has been suffering from long Covid for more than a year, told the broadcaster: ‘I just kept on thinking I’ll be over this soon, I’ll be over this and I’ll start getting better. I actually at one stage thought I was going completely and utterly barmy.
‘Then I was driving myself even harder and harder to get better and push through those moments where you’re completely exhausted and other people just didn’t get it.’
The UK has recorded 31,772 new Covid infections and 26 deaths in the latest government figures
Scientists have previously found that long-Covid sufferers have higher numbers of auto-antibodies.
This led German scientists to use an experimental drug for people with heart disease on a 59-year-old long-Covid patient
The drug — called BC 007, which is produced by German company Berlin Cures and given through a single-dose infusion — destroyed his auto-antibodies and reportedly improved his symptoms within hours.
To assess and treat people with the condition, the Department of Health in May said it would set up 89 long Covid clinics in England to treat anyone with the condition.
But according to BBC Panorama, four clinics only see patients who were hospitalised with the virus and some patients at 10 clinics had been waiting more than six months to be seen.
The Department of Health told the programme: ‘The Government rapidly provided specialist care for acutely ill Covid patients at the start of the pandemic and we’ve matched that speed and scale in our support for people with long-Covid.’
BBC Panorama’s episode on long-Covid will be broadcast at 7.35pm tonight on BBC One.
LONG COVID: WHAT IS IT AND COULD IT BE FOUR DIFFERENT SYNDROMES?
Covid-19 is described as a short-term illness caused by infection with the novel SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. Public health officials tend to say people will recover within two weeks or so.
However it’s become increasingly clear that this is not the case for everyone, and that the two-week period is only the ‘acute illness’ phase.
The North Bristol NHS Trust’s Discover project, which is studying the longer-term effects of coronavirus, found that out of a total of 110 patients given a three-month check up, most (74 per cent) had at least one persistent symptom after twelve weeks. The most common were:
- Excessive fatigue: 39%
- Breathlessness: 39%
- Insomnia: 24%
- Muscle pain: 23%
- Chest pain: 13%
- Cough: 12%
- Loss of smell: 12%
- Headache, fever, joint pain and diarrhoea: Each less than 10%
Other long term symptoms that have been reported by Covid-19 survivors, both suspected and confirmed, anecdotally, include hearing problems, ‘brain fog’, memory loss, lack of concentration, mental health problems and hair loss.
The impact of Long Covid on people who had mild illness have not been studied in depth yet.
Data from the King’s College London symptom tracking app shows that up to 500,000 people in the UK are currently suffering from the long-term effects of Covid-19.
In October, scientists claimed Long Covid could actually be split into four different syndromes.
Academics at the National Institute for Health Research — headed up by Professor Chris Whitty — were asked to review the limited evidence on long Covid to help both patients and doctors understand the ‘phenomenon’.
Their findings warned that even children can suffer and it can’t be assumed that people who are at lower risk of severe illness and death from Covid-19 are also at low risk of lasting side effects.
Doctors cautioned some mental health problems such as anxiety and depression in ‘long-haulers’, as they are known, could be down to lockdowns, as opposed to the virus itself.
The experts also claimed that the symptoms could be grouped into four different groups:
- Post intensive care syndrome (PICS)
- Post viral fatigue syndrome (PVFS)
- Permanent organ damage (POD)
- Long term Covid syndrome (LTCS)