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NIH to study 'long-haul' coronavirus symptoms, and their effects

A UW study found COVID-19 patients experienced symptoms that endured for months, complicating their return to normal life.

The National Institutes of Health is launching new research to try and understand the causes and consequences of the lingering brain fog, breathing problems and malaise reported by many recovering COVID-19 patients.

Dr. Anthony Fauci cited a University of Washington study that found up to 30% of patients have reported symptoms that can endure for months. These symptoms are complicating their return to normal routines and work, and also plunging many recovering patients into depression.

The UW study, which was published in JAMA Networks on Feb. 19, found these symptoms could linger even in patients who weren't severely ill with COVID-19 and didn't need to be seen in the emergency room or a clinic.

Fauci noted at a White House coronavirus briefing on Wednesday that work at the National Institutes of Health started this week thanks to more than $1 billion provided by Congress for COVID-19 related medical research. Government scientists are looking to enlist doctors and research institutions around the United States in the research effort, in order to learn more about “long-haul” COVID-19 impacts.

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Fauci said one critical issue is whether COVID-19 disease predisposes some patients to other medical problems later on, such as conditions affecting the heart or brain.

Dr. Helen Chu, an associate professor of medicine at the UW School of Medicine and senior author on the UW paper, said the phenomenon of post-viral malaise is not new. It's been documented with the flu and other infections, but until now researchers haven't been able to quantify it among COVID-19 patients.

“The question is, what is driving this?” Chu said. “Is it some sort of immune activation, some sort of inflammation or the development of autoimmunity?”

Chu said labs would analyze patient blood samples to try and answer those questions.

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