New study identifies four risk factors for long COVID

by mcardinal

Lauren Dempsey, MS in Biomedicine and Law, RN, FISM News 


A new and promising study highlights four potential risk factors that contribute to long COVID and may help physicians better identify and treat patients suffering from long Covid. 

Doctors have had a difficult time finding an explanation for why some patients who are infected with COVID-19 end up with symptoms that last weeks or months post-infection. Long COVID, or post-acute sequelae of COVID-19 as the NIH refers to it, include symptoms such as shortness of breath, fatigue, brain fog, joint or muscle pain, sleep problems, mood swings, change in menstrual period cycle, and change in smell and/or taste.

According to the World Health Organization it is estimated that 25% of people with COVID-19 have symptoms that linger 4-5 weeks after testing positive and about 10% have symptoms that last after 12 weeks. However, the exact number of people that are suffering from long COVID is unknown.

As per the CDC, even individuals who had asymptomatic symptoms can develop long COVID symptoms in the weeks or months post-infection. As of July, long COVID was even considered to be a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Up until now there has been little evidence to indicate why some patients are more at risk from developing long COVID than others, but a new study, which was published in the Cell, has shed some much-needed light on the issue.

The study evaluated blood and swab samples of 309 COVID-19 patients from their initial diagnosis and for a subsequent period of three months. Researchers “executed a deep multi-omic, longitudinal investigation” and “integrated with clinical data, and patient-reported symptoms.” By doing so they were able to identify four risk factors at the time of initial COVID-19 diagnosis. These risk factors are type 2 diabetes, SARS-CoV-2 RNAemia, Epstein-Barr virus viremia, and specific autoantibodies.

These risk factors are easily collected and could help physicians better identify patients that are considered high risk.

Of the four risk factors, the presence of autoantibodies was the most common. These cells tell the body to attack itself rather than defend itself. One of the other factors, SARS-CoV-2 RNAemia, describes the viral load of coronavirus present in one’s body, which indicates infection. A third factor was the reactivation of Epstein-Barr virus, or mono, which is a virus that is dormant in the body but can be reactivated in some individuals who become infected with COVID-19. The fourth factor is having Type II diabetes, which had been previously recognized as a risk factor for COVID-19.  

The research indicates that 95% of individuals with one of these biological risk factors developed long COVID, reiterating that those with comorbidities face a greater risk of severe illness or complications from COVID-19 infection. 

Dr. Jim Heath, one of the study authors and President and Professor at Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle said, “This research stresses the importance of doing measurements early in the disease course to figure out how to treat patients.” Heath also affirmed that these findings, if confirmed, could help a lot of COVID-19 patients, saying, “We as clinicians can actually design interventions to make people better.”