New Evidence Suggests COVID-19 Vaccines Might Mitigate Long COVID
Long COVID is real, and on October 6, the World Health Organization (WHO) published a formal definition of the illness, which it refers to as “post COVID-19 condition.” Now, evidence is emerging that not only can COVID-19 vaccines help to prevent the condition, but they could serve as a form of “rescue” for those already stricken with it.
The most common symptoms are fatigue, cognitive problems, shortness of breath or racing heartbeat (tachycardia). It is estimated that between 10% and 30% of people develop symptoms that last for months after their initial infection.
According to a study published in The Lancet in September, fully vaccinated people who contracted a breakthrough infection were about 50% less likely to develop long COVID than unvaccinated people with COVID-19. In the vaccinated group, just 5% of individuals developed the condition compared with 11.5% of their unvaccinated counterparts. And that is 5% of people who are much less likely to become infected in the first place. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises that “the risk of infection, hospitalization and death are all much lower in vaccinated people compared to unvaccinated.” A study conducted in Washington State between January 17 and August 21, 2021, showed that approximately 1 in 5,000 people experienced a breakthrough infection. It is suspected, however, that the Delta variant has increased these numbers.
The vaccines could also provide long COVID patients with an advantage in recovering from, or at least reducing, symptoms. According to a recent French study posted on a pre-print server, a group of patients reported that their symptoms had decreased from 15 to 13 four months after being vaccinated. The overall remission rate in the vaccinated group was 16.6% compared with 7.5% in a control group of unvaccinated long COVID patients. Each group was comprised of 455 participants.
Viet-Thi Tran, the study’s lead author and an associate professor of epidemiology at Université de Paris said that vaccination may eradicate a viral reservoir in the body that might be causing long-term symptoms in some patients. He also allowed for the possibility of a placebo effect – that patients feel better after getting vaccinated because they expect to.
According to Akiko Iwasaki, Ph.D., a professor of immunobiology at Yale University who studies long COVID and was also not involved in the study, the findings are consistent with the theory that vaccination may clear out some remaining virus that is triggering symptoms. Iwasaki said that, in this case, the improvement would be permanent.
Recent research from Kings College London appears to back this up. This research was based on Britain’s “Zoe” COVID study app, which tracked the self-reported symptoms of 1.2 million people between December 2020 and July 2021. Of vaccinated respondents, 0.2% reported being infected with COVID-19 (another plus in the vaccinated column) and of those, 5% reported experiencing long COVID, compared to 11% of their unvaccinated peers.
“This means that if you get exposed to the virus and you’ve been vaccinated, the vast chances are that you are not even going to be able to tell if you’ve been infected,” said Dr. Sterghios Moschos, a virologist at the University of Northumbria, who was not involved in the research. “That’s how good the vaccines are.”
There is also real-world evidence emerging from the United States. David Putrino is director of rehabilitation innovation at Mount Sinai Health System in New York, where more than 400 long COVID patients are enrolled in a rehab program. He said about half of these patients have reported feeling better after getting vaccinated, while the other half say they feel the same or worse. Daniel Griffin, M.D., Ph.D., chief of the division of infectious diseases for ProHealth NY in New Hyde Park, N.Y., describes a similar finding, saying that approximately 60% of his network’s long COVID patients report an improvement after getting vaccinated.