In Depth

Can coronavirus damage ‘last for life’?

Even mild cases of the virus can have long lasting impacts on the lungs, brain and heart

Even mild cases of the virus can have long lasting impacts on the lungs, brain and heart

Up to half a million Britons are currently suffering from the effects of “long Covid” - including psychosis, fatigue and loss of eyesight - as campaigners warn that patient testimony is being routinely dismissed by doctors.

Claire Hastie, founder of the 15,000-strong Long Covid Support Group, told the Daily Mail she was left wheelchair-bound by the virus and is one of many “long haulers” reporting persistent issues months after getting the all-clear.

“Many people in our group to this day are being told by their GPs that it’s caused by anxiety and it’s all in their heads” she said, adding: “The science needs to catch up with us.”

Other members of the group, such as Dr Jake Suett, have reported similar experiences.

“I was doing 12-hour shifts in ICU. It’s a high-pressure situation, you have to be able to be active. I was going to the gym three times a week regularly” he said. “Now a flight of stairs or the food shop is about what I can manage before I have to stop.”

Andrew Gwynne, a Labour MP and another “long hauler”, says simply asking a question in the House of Commons via video conference call is so debilitating in his current state that he has no choice but to spend the remainder of the day resting.

Since the early stages of the outbreak, doctors have been warning that “many patients will emerge from the shadow of the immediate threat of the disease only to face a range of long-term problems”, says the Daily Mail.

In May, Professor Nicholas Hart - who treated Boris Johnson when he was hospitalised with Covid-19 - described the disease as “this generation’s polio”.

“Large numbers of patients will have physical, cognitive and psychological disability post-critical illness that will require long-term management,” Hart added. “We must plan ahead.”

Like much about the outbreak, the long-term effects of the new coronavirus are still shrouded in uncertainty.

“Covid-19 has existed for less than six months, and it is easy to forget how little we know about it,” says The Atlantic. Even with more established diseases, “the aftermath of viral infections s poorly understood”.

One mystery is why even young, healthy Covid-19 patients who recover without needing hospital treatment are suffering persistent problems. Some have “been flattened by relentless and rolling waves of symptoms that make it hard to concentrate, exercise, or perform simple physical tasks”, the magazine reports.

In fact, “people with mild cases of the disease are more likely to have a variety of strange symptoms that come and go over a more extended period”, according to the Covid Symptom Study, a collaboration between King’s College London and health science company Zoe. 

These patients’ plight is one of many unanswered questions about Sars-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19.

Over the past few months, says BBC Future, “it has has become increasingly clear that Sars-CoV-2 is not just a turbo-charged version of the virus that causes the common cold: it has a number of quirky, unusual and sometimes terrifying traits”.

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What are the long-term effects of Covid-19?

According to the leaked NHS guidance, around half of the Covid-19 patients treated in intensive care may end up with “persistent physical, cognitive and psychological impairments”. One in seven may suffer long-term or permanent brain damage.

Experts say that even mild reduction in brain function may “increase the risk of degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s”, The Telegraph reports.

“And one in ten of those discharged from hospitals in England after treatment for Covid-19 has been left with acute heart injury.”

In China, the effects have been even more pronounced. “A paper in the journal JAMA Cardiology in March reported that one in five of 416 Covid-19 patients hospitalised in Wuhan, China, had suffered heart damage,” the Daily Mail reports.

The Covid Symptom Study suggests that patients’ liver and kidneys may also suffer long-term damage. However, the most serious risk appears to be to the lungs and brain.

A doctor in Hong Kong told a press briefing back in March that “some patients might have a drop of around 20% to 30% in lung function” even after they have recovered.

In some cases, the cause may be a prolonged stint on a ventilator, which can dry out the lungs and cause pulmonary fibrosis - a scarring of tissue. But in other cases, patients who didn’t use the breathing machines are experiencing the same ill-effects.

“One theory is that fibrosis occurs as the virus disrupts the wound-healing process,” says the Mail. Having damaged the lungs, the virus may then prevent the body from making repairs.

Its neurological impact is also a cause for concern.

“As many people reported ‘brain fogs’ and concentration challenges as coughs or fevers,” says The Atlantic. “Some have experienced hallucinations, delirium, short-term memory loss, or strange vibrating sensations when they touch surfaces.”

Professor Robert Stevens of Johns Hopkins University says “there is a significant percentage of Covid-19 patients whose only symptom is confusion”, and has warned about “a secondary pandemic of neurological disease”.

Some researchers now believe that the virus may be able to cross the blood-brain barrier, which would mean the virus can “get into the core of the central nervous system”, adds the BBC.

And “it may remain there, with the potential to return years down the line”.

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