Three potential breakthroughs in our understanding of long Covid have raised hopes for new treatments and approaches for sufferers of the debilitating post-Covid-19 condition, which can leave people unable to return to work for months at a time.
First, a study testing a different form of MRI scanning, using the gas xenon rather than more conventional contrast dyes, has identified abnormalities in the lungs of long Covid patients that were otherwise unable to be picked up.
This could help to explain why so many with the condition (or set of conditions) experience post-viral breathlessness and fatigue.
The pilot ‘Explain’ study examined 36 patients but is aiming to recruit as many of 400 participants, and its findings may indicate that Covid-19 can cause microscopic damage to the lungs of patients that is unable to be detected via more routine tests.
The results of the study have been published on the bioRxiv pre-print server (which means it has yet to be peer reviewed) with the Explain project arguing: “Early work from the team using hyperpolarised xenon MRI in patients following hospitalisation with COVID-19 pneumonia found that that their lungs may be damaged even when all other tests were normal.
“A new pilot study from the project looks at the lungs of patients who were not hospitalised but are suffering from ‘long Covid’,” it added.
The second potential advance is research from University Hospital Zurich in Switzerland that has concluded there is a distinct ‘antibody signature’ that may help to identify patients who are most at risk of developing long Covid.
The researchers analysed blood from Covid patients and found low levels of a range of antibodies were more common in patients who developed long Covid than in those who recovered without side-effects.
Finally, third, research from South Africa has suggested that microscopic blood clots could be another important factor in long Covid.
Professor Resia Pretorius, at the Department of Physiological Science at Stellenbosch University in the Western Cape, found an “unexpected” connection between microscopic blood clots and blood samples from long Covid patients.
It has long been recognised that Covid-19 can cause clotting of the blood, particularly in patients who experience severe symptoms, but micro clots could help to explain some of the ongoing symptoms associated with long Covid.
Professor Pretorius’ study has been published in the journal Cardiovascular Diabetology and she said: “We found high levels of various inflammatory molecules trapped in micro clots present in the blood of individuals with long Covid. Some of the trapped molecules contain clotting proteins such as fibrinogen, as well as alpha(2)-antiplasmin.”
However, in less positive news for long Covid patients, there have been reports of GPs being told to stop referring patients to specialist NHS long Covid clinics because of the sheer numbers coming forward with long-term side-effects.
According to the i newspaper, the South East London clinical commissioning group in its latest coronavirus update for GP practices said it had suspended its post-Covid assessment clinics at Kings College Hospital Trust and Guy’s & St Thomas’ Hospital, and had instructed GPs not to send any more referral requests.
The move was reportedly described as “concerning” by Professor Azeem Majeed, head of the department of primary care and public health at Imperial College London.