The National Institutes of Health announced Wednesday that it is allocating nearly $ 470 million to New York University Langone Health to research the long-term effects of COVID-19 to increase an unprecedented national effort to study so-called “long COVID.”
The federal money will be split up by NYU to fund more than 100 researchers at institutions around the country, accelerating efforts to build a sweeping “meta-cohort” that includes thousands of COVID-19 survivors of various ages and backgrounds who still experience symptoms more than a month after their first infection.
“The only way we can fix this is with very large studies that collect a lot of data on symptoms, physical findings and laboratory measures,” said NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins to reporters at a briefing Wednesday.
Somereport struggling with such as extreme fatigue, headache, dizziness, “brain fog” and difficulty breathing for several months after their first infection. Doctors are not sure what is causing it. One theory is that traces of the virus may continue to “hide” in the body, while others believe it may be due to the immune system going into overdrive.
The program, called the RECOVER initiative – Researching COVID to Enhance Recovery – was first announced in February by the NIH using a pool of money researchers had sought from Congress to investigate risk factors, incidence and results of long COVID.
Some of the studies that will report data to the initiative are already underway. The NIH had previously allocated funding to New York University and Massachusetts General Hospital to build the “infrastructure” of the effort, coordinate studies, and organize data from the projects.
Enrollment in the initiative’s new studies is expected to begin within the next few months, researchers said, aiming to make up about 30,000 to 40,000 people.
It is several times larger than the 5,000 to 8,000 people typically included in this kind of cohort studies, says Dr. Gary Gibbons, director of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.
“We are much more ambitious here. And starting this, kicking it off, trying to hit targets within the next 12 to 18 months after the grant. So this is really moving at a fast pace compared to most cohorts at. scale, “Gibbons added.
“Very early on, we really had no answer,” Hannah Davis, a spokeswoman for research for other long-lived COVID survivors, told CBSN in an interview..
Sick of the first wave of the virus in March 2020, Davis said she had faced ongoing neurological symptoms after her infection. Others have reported a wide range of effects, including fever that lasts over a year, Davis said.
“We still see a lot of researchers just focusing on symptoms. What are the symptoms of long COVID? We are past that. We need to start getting into treatment and pathophysiology,” she said.
The RECOVER cohort does not plan to study specific treatments for long COVID in the current intervention phase, but researchers said it could lay the groundwork for future discoveries.
“We hope to identify therapeutic targets, and we plan to be able to use some of the same infrastructure that is present for this observational study for future clinical trials,” said New York University Dr. Stuart Katz.
Among the first questions that researchers hope to get answers from study participants is to refine the very definition of long COVID, according to Katz.
Data on the frequency of long-term effects of COVID-19 vary widely, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which ranges from about 5% to 80% of infections. These studies largely depend on how researchers defined which symptoms were initially considered true long COVID cases.
Earlier this month, the CDC reported study data in which two out of three respondents who had tested positive for the virus had symptoms that lasted more than four weeks after their first infection.
“If it’s the case that 10 to 30% of people want some kind of long COVID, we’re talking about millions of people,” Collins said.
Researchers abroad have also stepped up efforts to investigate the long-term effects of COVID-19, with a recent UK study finding that vaccinated people withof the disease were less likely to report prolonged COVID symptoms than unvaccinated humans.
“One of the really worrying aspects of this terrible pandemic may be the long-term effect of this long tail on people who are unable to return to their pre-infection state, and we must do everything we can to get answer to that, “Collins said.