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Researchers might finally know why some people suffer from Long COVID

Published Jan 28th, 2021 8:00PM EST
Long COVID Symptoms
Image: Luca Lorenzelli/Adobe

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  • An increasing number of COVID-19 survivors are experiencing coronavirus symptoms several weeks or months after the infection has cleared in what’s known informally as “Long COVID.”
  • Several studies have shown the wide variety of symptoms that long haulers can experience, with doctors highlighting the severity of this COVID-19 complication.
  • A new set of studies might finally explain why some people suffer from Long COVID. The illness may trigger autoantibodies that harm the body rather than attacking the virus.

The vast majority of COVID-19 patients who beat the virus aren’t done fighting its symptoms. The illness isn’t gone after those 14 days of battling the active infection. Many survivors will go on to experience COVID-19 symptoms for weeks to months to come. Some of those symptoms mimic the initial sickness

There might not be any virus left in their systems, but they still have trouble breathing and experience fatigue, pain, and other symptoms. This is what’s called “Long COVID,” a puzzling, chronic coronavirus illness. Doctors have been studying these “long haulers” for months, looking to explain the condition and treat it.

Now, a new series of studies might offer up an explanation for Long COVID symptoms, as some researchers think they’ve finally figured out why some people end up suffering long after the infection has passed.

When the body defends itself against a foreign element like the novel coronavirus, it mounts an immune response to get rid of the pathogen. This includes creating specific antibodies that can neutralize the virus, as white blood cells adapt to recognize the pathogen and fight it again upon reinfection. But The New York Times points out that a large number of studies are focusing on a type of antibody that will not do anything to block the virus. They’re called autoantibodies, and they’re part of the immune response in COVID-19, and they will attack your own body.

These autoantibodies can persist for several months after the infection, which could explain why COVID-19 symptoms can last for so long. The conclusion comes from a limited study that needs more validation. Doctors at the Boston Medical Center observed nine COVID-19 patients, five of them showing autoantibodies for at least seven months after infection. “It’s a signal; it is not definitive,” Dr. Nahid Bhadelia warned in a comment. “We don’t know how prevalent it is and whether or not it can be linked to long Covid.”

But the Times report points out that Bhadelia’s work on COVID-19 autoantibodies isn’t singular:

  • a study in October showed that out of 52 patients with severe COVID-19, 70% developed autoantibodies against their DNA and proteins that help with blood clotting;
  • a study in October proved that autoantibodies form against carbohydrates in COVID-19 patients, which could lead to neurological signs;
  • a study in October also showed that some patients already had existing autoantibodies before the infection, and then they attacked the immune response to COVID-19;
  • a study in November showed that half of the subjects had autoantibodies that could cause clots and blockages in blood vessels;
a study in December showed COVID-19 autoantibodies targeting the immune system, brain cells, connective tissue, and clotting factors;
  • a study showed that people suffering from rare autoimmune rheumatic diseases (lupus and scleroderma) face an increased risk of death in COVID-19;
  • a study said that autoimmune illnesses like Type 1 diabetes, psoriasis, and rheumatoid arthritis lead to an increase in coronavirus respiratory complications.

Some of these antibodies might disappear in time, Harvard University immunologist Dr. Shiv Pilai told the paper. If that will be the case, the symptoms might go away. “That being said — yes, it would be interesting if long Covid might be explained by specific autoantibodies,” he added.

Separately, a different immunologist commenting on one of the studies identified one silver lining. “We’re going to learn some fundamental principles about acute viral infections in people who haven’t been easy to study in this way before,” Dr. Marion Pepper, from the University of Washington in Seattle, told the paper.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.