Covid-19 patients who experience fatigue and other lingering effects months after infection could have new treatment options or prevention methods under a program the NIH plans to kick into gear next month.
The National Institutes of Health announced Friday an initiative to improve understanding of how patients recover from Covid-19, particularly those who experience symptoms well past the usual two or three-week recovery time.
Patients with lingering Covid-19 symptoms have reported fatigue, pain, and trouble concentrating, as well as a rapid increase in heart rate when rising from sitting or lying down position. Their physical problems are compounded by difficulties handling insurance claims for high hospital bills.
“There’s a lot of questions, not any answers yet,” Walter J. Koroshetz, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, part of the NIH, said in an interview. He hopes the initiative will allow scientists to learn why some people recover more quickly than others and identify the underlying biological cause of trouble in people who still aren’t better after months.
There will likely be a need to follow patients around for years to understand if and what effects Covid-19 has on other illnesses as well.
“We think it’s potentially a big problem because of the number of people who have been infected. So if even a small percentage develop long-term symptoms, it’s still going to be a large number of people,” Koroshetz said.
The U.S. has about 26.7 million confirmed cases of Covid-19 as of Feb. 5, according to Bloomberg’s virus tracker.
Hospitals across the country established post-Covid clinics to follow patients who came out of intensive care. But over time, those clinics have filled with people who never needed hospitalization but still suffered from symptoms at variable lengths of time, he said.
Formally called the Post-Acute Sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 Infection (PASC) Initiative, the new NIH program aims to answer questions that have puzzled doctors treating Covid-19 patients. Specifically, the research grants will look into the biological bases for why people experience different types of recovery from a SARS-Cov-2 infection.
They’ll also look into the prevalence, clinical spectrum, and underlying biology of patients who never fully recover from Covid-19 or develop new symptoms after they’ve gotten well.
“There is this really close interaction between the immune system and the system in the brain,” he said. “The brain has very similar receptors, almost identical receptors, to what you see on the white cells. So a lot of these chemical messages cross talk.”
The NIH aims to publish the official announcement in mid-February, with initial awards going out in early March.
Koroshetz’s institute also started a database with New York University to track patients’ neurological symptoms associated with Covid-19. The database offers an open forum for physicians and clinical sites treating Covid-19 patients to send data or biospecimens—stripped of the patient’s identifying information—so researchers can have a large sample of data.