Is it time to lose the term Long COVID?

By Lyndal Byford,

the Australian Science Media Centre

It might be time to stop using terms like ‘long COVID’ with new research suggesting that the condition may be no different to other post-viral syndromes.

The study, by Queensland’s Chief Health Officer, Dr John Gerrard, which is yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, is being presented in April at the European Congress of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases in Spain.

Gerrard says it found similar rates of long-term impairment between people who caught COVID-19 and those who caught other respiratory illnesses, such as the flu.

“We found that the rates of ongoing symptoms and functional impairment are indistinguishable from other post-viral illnesses.”

For 12 months the researchers followed almost 2,400 adults with PCR-confirmed COVID-19 and around 2,700 adults who had cold and flu symptoms, including almost 1,000 who had confirmed influenza.

They found that after a year, 3% of those who tested positive for COVID-19 still had moderate to severe functional limitations, compared to around 4.1% of those with other respiratory illnesses. Rates were also similar among those with influenza.

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The research did not find universal agreement.

Professor Jeremy Nicholson from Murdoch University, says the key question is whether long COVID is unique, worthy of its own name, or is it just another post-viral syndrome?

The authors say that these results show long COVID is indistinguishable from other post-viral syndromes, but Nicholson says “this question cannot be simply answered in this work.”

“The study is observational, based on reported symptoms with no physiological or detailed functional follow-up data,” he told the Australian Science Media Centre.

“Without laboratory pathophysiological assessment of individual patients, it is impossible to say that this is indistinguishable from flu-related or any other post-viral syndrome.”

Nicholson also warned there may be long-term effects such as heart disease, atherosclerosis, and diabetes, which don’t have significant early-stage symptoms.

“These conditions do however have associated metabolic signatures which were not measured in the current study,” he said.

But the authors believe it is time to stop using the ‘long COVID’ terminology as it can cause unnecessary fear, and in some cases, hypervigilance to longer symptoms that can impede recovery. 

Professor Philip Britton from the University of Sydney told the AusSMC that this conclusion was “overstated and potentially unhelpful.”

Britton, who was not involved in the study, is a member of the Long Covid Australia Collaboration, a group working to understand the ongoing health impacts of long COVID.

He said that while studies like this are reassuring as they show that most people will recover from COVID without long-term effects, the efforts to dismiss long COVID effects by dismissing the term altogether are unlikely to help.

“Long COVID has been a global phenomenon, recognised by WHO,” he said.

You can read the full AusSMC Expert Reaction here.

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