A fifth of people who have tested positive for Covid-19 are still exhibiting symptoms five weeks or more after being infected with the virus, with a tenth suffering from “long Covid” for three months or longer, official figures have suggested.
The research from the Office for National Statistics concluded around 186,000 people in private households in England in the week beginning November 22 were living with Covid-19 symptoms that had persisted for between five and 12 weeks.
These symptoms included fatigue (11.5%), a lingering cough (11.4%) and headaches (10.1%). A lower proportion (8.2%) were still experiencing a loss of taste, while 7.9% still had no sense of smell.
Occupational health practitioners have expressed concern that long Covid could in time become a significant return-to-work challenge for the profession and employers.
The ONS has said that early next year it will add a long Covid question to its regular Covid-19 Infection Survey. This will allow respondents to state the impact long Covid has had on their day-to-day activities, and will include an expanded list of symptoms.
“This new data will allow us to enrich our analysis, for example by estimating the proportion of people with long COVID symptoms who are burdened by the condition,” it said.
The ONS findings add to our growing understanding of the virus, and has followed a study that concluded people’s genetic make-up could also be an important factor in how severely ill they become after being infected, or how they long are affected for.
The study of intensive care patients, published in the journal Nature, concluded five genes were associated with the most severe form of Covid-19.
Key differences in these five genes – known as IFNAR2, TYK2, OAS1, DPP9 and CCR2 – partially explained why some people became severely sick with Covid-19, while others are not affected, the researchers argued.
The hope is that this knowledge will now allow doctors to use existing drug treatments on patients with these gene variations to reduce their symptoms, or help in the development of new therapies to treat the virus.
Dr Kenneth Baillie, chief investigator of the project and academic consultant in critical care medicine at the Roslin Institute, said: “This is a stunning realisation of the promise of human genetics to help understand critical illness.
“Our results immediately highlight which drugs should be at the top of the list for clinical testing. We can only test a few drugs at a time, so making the right choices will save thousands of lives.”