In a bid to understand the long-term effects of contracting Covid-19, the UK Government has announced a £19.6m research drive into long Covid. The government-backed funds from the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) will help fund 15 new studies across the UK.
The latest research shows that up to one in three people who contract Covid-19 also report long Covid symptoms, with older people and women more likely to be affected.
The new call for research would benefit thousands of people suffering from the lasting effects of the disease. Symptoms include fatigue, brain fog, depression, chest pain and shortness of breath.
According to guidance from the UK National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE): “long Covid describes signs and symptoms that continue or develop after acute Covid-19. It includes both ongoing symptomatic Covid-19 (from four to 12 weeks) and post-Covid-19 syndrome (12 weeks or more).”
“Long Covid can have serious and debilitating long term effects for thousands of people across the UK which can make daily life extremely challenging,” Health and Social Care Secretary, Sajid Javid said in a statement.
“This new research is absolutely essential to improve diagnosis and treatments and will be life-changing for those who are battling long-term symptoms of the virus.”
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The studies will aim to better understand the condition, its symptoms and how to diagnose it. They will also focus on identifying treatments, optimising standard of care and improving self-management of symptoms.
The government says that the selection process for the studies has “involved people with lived experience at every stage” and that their input has been “invaluable in shaping the outcome of this call and the research projects which will receive funding.”
Studies exploring all areas of long Covid
Selected projects include STIMULATE-ICP at University College London (UCL) which will be the largest long Covid trial to date, recruiting more than 4,500 people with the condition.
The project has £6.8 million in funding and will test the effectiveness of existing drugs to treat the illness by measuring the effects of three months’ treatment, including on people’s symptoms, mental health and outcomes such as returning to work.
Additionally, it will evaluate the use of MRI scans to help diagnose potential organ damage, as well as enhanced rehabilitation through an app to track symptoms.
“Individuals with long Covid have long been asking for recognition, research and rehabilitation,” says the trial’s chief investigator, UCL associate professor in clinical data science Amitava Banerjee.
“In our two-year study across six clinical sites around England, we will be working with patients, health professionals, scientists across different disciplines, as well as industry partners, to test and evaluate a new ‘integrated care’ pathway from diagnosis to rehabilitation, and potential drug treatments in the largest trial to-date.
Another study which has received £1.8 million from the same pool of funds, EXPLAIN at the University of Oxford, will seek to diagnose ongoing breathlessness in people with Covid-19 who were not admitted to hospital using MRI scans.
Meanwhile, the CICERO study is being led by UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience principal research fellow Dr Dennis Chan and has been awarded £1.2m to look into ‘brain fog’ associated with the illness.
“Cognitive impairment, referred to informally as ‘brain fog’, is a major component of long Covid that compromises people’s daily activities and ability to return to work,” says Chan.
“The aim of this study is twofold; first, to understand better the nature of this ‘cognitive Covid’ in terms of the cognitive functions affected and the associated brain imaging changes, and second, to test whether neuropsychological rehabilitation can improve people’s outcomes. If this study is successful we will not only understand much better the way in which Covid affects the brain but also provide NHS services with new tools to help people recover from their cognitive difficulties.”
The announcement for new and extensive research into long Covid builds on the work started by NHS England and Improvement in October 2020, when a five-point plan to tackle the condition was published.
On 15 June 2021, NHSEI published an extended ten-point plan and announced an additional £100 million expansion of care for patients with long Covid. There are now 89 specialist post-Covid-19 clinics operating in England.