A clinical trial has been launched to detect currently invisible lung damage in people with long Covid, as part of a £20m research drive that scientists hope will end stigma around the condition.
Patients still suffering breathlessness will be drawn from long Covid clinics in Sheffield, Manchester and Cardiff to undergo special scans using xenon gas to reveal damage that does not show up on conventional CT scans, leading to a mystery about why people are not getting better.
The study by Fergus Gleeson, a professor of radiology at the University of Oxford, is one of 15 being funded by the National Institute for Health Research that will range from working out why the virus causes “brain fog”, through to counting the economic cost to the NHS and to companies whose employees are left too ill to work.
Long Covid is defined as having one or more Covid symptoms – including fatigue, muscle pain and diarrhoea – lasting more than 12 weeks and is estimated to affect more than 2 million people.
The investment more than doubles the institute’s current research funding into the condition, with a battery of “very large-scale studies to characterise the disease and understand it better,” said its medical director, Prof Nick Lemoine.
One of the trials will examine the effectiveness of drugs, including aspirin, in about 4,500 patients recruited in six cities. It will look at “surprising findings of mild organ impairment across multiple organs”, according to Dr Amitava Banerjee, an associate professor in clinical data science at University College London (UCL).
Asked about public doubts over the seriousness of the illness, which manifests in different ways from cognitive impairment to breathlessness, Banerjee said: “All of the long Covid clinics that have been set up have waiting lists. This is not in doubt and is very far from imaginary.”
Another will examine the cognitive profile of long Covid to determine whether it affects memory or the speed of decision-making while exploring whether cognitive rehabilitation, as used in stroke victims, may help.
A trial of app-based therapies will be overseen by Dr Dennis Chan, a principal research fellow at UCL, who will also undertake brain scans to find out how brain volume changes and how its connections are affected because of the virus directly penetrating into neural pathways.
One of the challenges facing researchers is examining long Covid in people who have not been hospitalised and working out pathways for treatment and determining whether hospital clinics or GPs are best placed to tackle the problem.
Lemoine said it had already been established that middle-aged people and particularly women were more likely to have long Covid. He cited a University of Birmingham study suggesting people who had more than five symptoms in the first week of having the virus were more likely to develop it.
In potentially good news for younger people, Lemoine said results from an ongoing study of more than 10,000 school-age children and young adults who had received a positive diagnosis suggested “the prevalence of long Covid in that cohort is less than in middle-aged or elderly people”.