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Long COVID: The science shows how little we know

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It wasn’t long ago that people with persisting COVID-19 symptoms said they felt their doctors didn’t take them seriously. Now, two or more years into the pandemic, things are changing.

We know more about the condition that’s called long COVID. We know that millions of people have it worldwide. We have a better idea about what causes it, but that research is ongoing. And we won’t know the long-term effects of long COVID for years.

What is long COVID?

When people get long COVID, the debilitating symptoms of an SARS-CoV-2 infection don’t stop after the virus has left their bodies. Breathing difficulties, extreme fatigue and chest pain can persist for months after infection. It can make daily life — getting back to normal — challenging.

Some studies suggest that between 14-30% of COVID patients get at least one symptom of long COVID within 90 days after recovery from infection.

That means that with 395 million COVID cases worldwide (at time of writing), between 55 and 120 million people are suffering, or have suffered, with long COVID.

There is little data on the long-term effects of long COVID on individuals and society as a whole. It will take years before we have reliable data on that.

Researchers have identified a number of risk factors, but they are still trying to work out what exactly causes long COVID. It’s not the same for everyone. And it is still a mystery why some people develop long COVID and why others do not.

Is long COVID less severe with omicron?

Omicron is currently the dominant variant of the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. And a lot of the data suggests that it causes milder infections in the majority of cases.

It’s also one of the most infectious forms of COVID-19, and there are concerns that the sheer number of omicron cases could lead to a rise in cases of long COVID.

The chances of developing long COVID are higher following a severe infection, but you can get long COVID regardless of whether you have had a severe or mild infection.

What causes long COVID?

Long COVID is defined as a heterogenous syndrome — it can be caused by different factors or a mix of factors. And that means there is more than one kind of long COVID.

“There are at least two different types: One occurs in COVID-19 patients [whose infections were so severe] that they were treated in an intensive care unit with a life-threatening condition. And another can occur in individuals who had mild to moderate symptoms,” said Joachim Schultze at the German brain research institute, DZNE.

The more severe form of long COVID is caused by damage to multiple organs.

To get a better diagnosis

Doctors need to understand how long COVID works — its “mechanism” — for them to properly diagnose and treat it in patients. And researchers are making progress.

Ophthalmologists in Germany, for instance, have investigated small blood vessels, known as capillaries, in the eyes of long COVID patients.

Researchers say long COVID seems to effect the shape of some blood vessels and that that can affect the blood’s ability to flow through the body.

A study published in January found four major risk factors:

  • A high level of SARS-CoV-2 RNA in blood samples
  • The presence of autoantibodies, which attack the body’s own tissues
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Reactivation of a previous Epstein-Barr virus infection

Researchers have also found specific antibodies in the blood of long COVID patients.

These findings show how certain factors can increase the risk of long COVID. But they are not enough to predict whether you, or any other person, are specifically at risk.

In addition, researchers do not yet know why some patients don’t get it.

Long-term impact on people and society

There’s another thing we can’t predict: How long COVID will affect individuals and communities over the coming years. We simply lack the data about the burden of long COVID on the global economy, communities and health services.

Those statistics are years away, as well. But researchers are tracking these developments.

Some large-scale studies aim to track people’s health long after their COVID-19 infections and recovery.

Other studies aim to calculate the impact of long COVID on health systems, societies and economies.

But researchers like the DZNE’s Joachim Schultze say we need more research to provide better clinical definitions and diagnostic criteria on the various forms of long COVID. They believe they will need much more data to be able to understand the full impact of the condition.

Do vaccines protect against long COVID?

Some data shows that vaccines can lower a person’s risk of developing long COVID after a SARS-CoV-2 infection.

Two studies — one in Israel and the other in the United Kingdom — have found that people with two doses of a vaccine are less likely to report long COVID symptoms than unvaccinated people.

The researchers have said their findings also show that vaccines do not cause long COVID. Long COVID only occurs after a viral infection. 

According to the researchers, vaccines help reduce the risks associated with long COVID in two ways.

First, vaccines help us avoid COVID-19 infections. And second, they reduce the severity of symptoms if you still do get infected.

Vaccines do not, however, fully remove the risk of long COVID. As a result, says Schultze, it’s important that scientists are allowed to develop new diagnostic tools and therapeutic options for long COVID while they also continue to identify its broader impact on society.

Edited by: Zulfikar Abbany



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Indian lunar orbiter hit by heat rise

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NEW DELHI, India (CNN) — Scientists have switched off several on-board instruments to halt rising temperatures inside India’s first unmanned lunar spacecraft.

For India the $80 million mission puts the country on the inside track of a fast-developing Asian space race.

The spacecraft carrying India’s first lunar probe, Chandrayaan-1, lifts off from Sriharikota.

Mylswamy Annadurai, the project director for the lunar mission, told CNN that temperatures onboard Chandrayaan-1 had risen to 49 degrees Celsius (120 degrees Fahrenheit).

The increase occurred as the craft, the moon — which it is orbiting — and the sun lined up, a phenomenon which Annadurai said was not unexpected and which would likely last until the end of December.

“We have switched off the systems (aboard) that are not needed to be on,” Annadurai said, ruling out the possibility of damage and adding that the temperature was now down to 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit).

Heat on board the Chandrayaan-1 should not exceed 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit), Annadurai said — but insisted the orbiter is designed to withstand up to 60 degrees Celsius (140 degrees Fahrenheit).

The Chandrayaan-1 — Chandrayaan means “moon craft” in Sanskrit — was successfully launched from southern India on October 22. VideoWatch the launch of India’s first lunar mission »

Its two-year mission is to take high-resolution, three-dimensional images of the moon’s surface, especially the permanently shadowed polar regions. It also will search for evidence of water or ice and attempt to identify the chemical composition of certain lunar rocks, the group said.

Earlier this month the Moon Impact Probe detached from Chandrayaan-1 and successfully crash-landed on the moon’s surface.

Officials say that the TV-size probe, which is adorned with a painting of the Indian flag, hit the moon’s surface at a speed of 5,760 kilometers per hour (3,579 mph).

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It transmitted data to Chandrayaan-1 ahead of impact but was not intended to be retrieved after that.

Chandrayaan-1 is carrying payloads from the United States, the European Union and Bulgaria. India plans to share the data from the mission with other programs, including NASA.

All About India • NASA

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Inspiration for 'Contact' still listening

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From a remote valley in Northern California, Jill Tarter is listening to the universe.

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Shuttle lands at California air base

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(CNN) — Space shuttle Endeavour landed safely Sunday afternoon at California’s Edwards Air Force Base after NASA waved off two opportunities for a Florida landing because of poor weather.

NASA opted to land the shuttle in California on Sunday, because of bad weather at Kennedy Space Center.

Endeavour glides in for a landing Sunday at California’s Edwards Air Force Base.

The shuttle, steered by commander Christopher Ferguson, landed at 1:25 p.m., ending a mission that lasted more than two weeks.

Wind, rain and reports of thunderstorms within 30 miles of the shuttle landing facility at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center prompted NASA to cancel the landing attempts there. Those had been scheduled for 1:19 p.m. and 2:54 p.m. ET.

After determining Monday’s weather forecast at Kennedy Space Center was equally unpromising, flight controllers decided they would try to land the shuttle and its seven astronauts at Edwards AFB, about 100 miles from Los Angeles, California, where Sunday’s forecast was sunny.

Flight controllers prefer landings at Kennedy Space Center because of cost and schedule. NASA has estimated it costs about $1.7 million to bring a shuttle home to Kennedy Space Center from California. VideoWatch Endeavour’s Sunday landing in California »

It also takes at least a week to get the shuttle ready for the trip, but schedule is not a major factor for the Endeavour; it is not scheduled to fly again until May.

Endeavour’s 15-day mission to the international space station began on November 14 and included four spacewalks.

During that time, the crew brought key pieces — including exercise equipment, more sleeping berths and a urine recycling system — for a project to double the capacity of the station from three in-house astronauts to six.

The recycling system was installed to turn urine and sweat from the astronauts into drinking water.

Other modules are scheduled to arrive on a February shuttle flight. The goal of expanding the station’s capacity to six astronauts is expected to be reached by the summer.

The crew also worked on a joint that helps generate power for the space station. Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper and Steve Bowen spent hours cleaning and lubricating the Solar Alpha Rotary Joint, which is designed to allow the solar panels on the left side of the station to rotate and track the sun.

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The astronauts also removed and replaced several trundle bearing assemblies.

The mission went according to plan, despite a minor interruption on the first spacewalk when a grease gun in Stefanyshyn-Piper tool’s bag leaked, coating everything inside with a film of lubricant. While she was trying to clean it up, the bag — with $100,000 in tools — floated away.

CNN’s Kate Tobin and Miles O’Brien contributed to this report.

All About Space Shuttle Endeavour • NASA • Kennedy Space Center

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