The coronavirus vaccination efforts have seen varying degrees of success around the world so far. More than 268 million doses have been administered worldwide, according to March 2nd data, and countries like Israel and the UK have already reported great results. New studies show the vaccines work as expected, reducing the risk of severe COVID-19 that can lead to hospitalization and death. The studies also show that the vaccine is highly effective against the UK mutation, which is dominant in the two countries and might reach a similar status in other regions. It’s only a partial success though, because the vaccine supply is still nowhere near enough to meet the world’s needs. Also, many countries are left out of this initial wave of vaccinations, including most developing nations. Some mutations can reduce the effectiveness of vaccines as well, like the South African and Brazilian mutants that have been discovered recently.
So far, the vaccines have been well-tolerated and the adverse reactions are minimal. But doctors have started observing an unexpected coronavirus vaccine side effect that warrants attention. This time around, however, it’s good news: Vaccines might address the “Long COVID” symptoms that some COVID-19 survivors experience.
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Many COVID-19 survivors develop a condition called “Long COVID,” a chronic version of the illness. They test negative for SARS-CoV-2 since their immune systems eliminated the coronavirus, but they continue to experience symptoms for weeks or even months. These can be regular COVID-19 symptoms, including fatigue, brain fog, shortness of breath, or stranger symptoms that might not be immediately associated with COVID-19.
Long COVID might need more extended treatment, and doctors have no idea what causes it or how long it can last. Some of the long haulers experience it for just a few weeks after the infection. Others have Long COVID for months after they’ve recovered.
Dr. Daniel Griffin, who treats chronic COVID-19 patients, told The Verge that many people started feeling better after receiving the vaccine.
“I started getting texts and calls from some of my colleagues saying, hey, are your patients with long COVID reporting that they’re feeling better after the vaccine?” the Columbia University infectious disease expert said. “It’s not 100 percent, but it does seem like to be around a third.”
The report notes that many of Griffin’s patients who improved experienced significant side effects after the first dose of the Moderna or Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. That’s something seen in people who have survived COVID-19 and qualified for vaccination. The first jab acts like a booster for an immune system that already beat the virus. Several studies have already shown that COVID-19 survivors develop a massive immune response after a single dose, suggesting a protocol change for this group of people that would allow health officials to save doses for people who were never infected.
After the vaccine, the Long COVID patients started feeling better. The sense of smell returned, and they were not feeling as tired. “For some of them, it was short-lived. But for a chunk, it actually persisted — they went ahead, got their second shot out, and are saying, wow, they really feel like there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” Griffin told The Verge.
Other doctors made similar observations about vaccinated Long COVID patients. Some of them do get better after the vaccine. The percentage of people who see improvements can be relatively high, with a different survey showing that about a third of almost 500 people suffering from Long COVID got better after the vaccine.
But just as doctors cannot fully explain Long COVID, they can’t explain why some patients might get better from the vaccine. This is all anecdotal evidence, so studies will need to measure these improvements and determine what might cause them. Also, it’s unclear which vaccines might elicit this type of adverse effect in long-haulers.
What’s certain is that the immune system will react after the first vaccine dose and start producing antibodies. COVID-19 survivors already have antibodies and other immune system cells that can recognize and beat SARS-CoV-2. They would go to work in the event of reinfection. The vaccine would boost that response, improving the protection. Maybe that’s what leads to improvements for Long COVID patients as well.
An increasing number of studies have pointed out the existence of autoantibodies that might appear after COVID-19, which can bind to the virus and stop it from infecting cells. The autoantibodies would hurt the body, and this may lead to Long COVID symptoms. It’s unclear if that’s indeed what happens, or whether antibodies generated after the vaccine can somehow interact with those autoantibodies.