Mt. A’s Dr. Vett Lloyd and team have been working for more than a year to understand Long COVID, but their work is not yet done
The government of New Brunswick has recently terminated its COVID safety measures. But as new infections and deaths continue to be reported around the province, it is clear that the pandemic is still with us. For those suffering from what has been termed “Long COVID,” this reality is particularly striking.
“When the pandemic started the assumption was if you got it, you had two choices–you could live or you could die,” said Dr. Vett Lloyd, a biology professor and Long COVID researcher at Mt. A. “What some people found out is that while they lived, they didn’t recover from it fully. So, either the symptoms never went away or they didn’t go away completely.”
Dr. Lloyd is leading a Mt. A-based research team looking into Canada’s response to Long COVID, its impact on patients, risk factors, and its biomedical correlates.
Biomedical correlates, as Lloyd defined in an email, are the “genetic, physiological and/or cellular factors that predispose someone to getting long COVID. For example, if someone isn’t good at making a specific type of antibody, are they more likely to get Long COVID?”
Although the World Health Organization prefers the term “post COVID-19” over “Long COVID,” it defined the illness as a condition that “occurs in individuals with a history of probable or confirmed SARS CoV-2 infection, usually 3 months from the onset of COVID-19 with symptoms that last for at least 2 months and cannot be explained by an alternative diagnosis.”
“Phase 1 of our Long COVID study was conducted a year ago, and it was initially just an outreach program where we created a survey that was delivered to Canadians across the country, asking for their patient experiences and demographic information,” said MacKenzie Scott, a fourth-year biology major and the project’s research coordinator and student project manager.
The team will soon process blood samples of participants from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in order to see how Long COVID may be similar to other post-infectious syndromes. They hope to “quantify [participants’] antibodies and see how that relates across chronic lyme disease, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue syndrome,” said Scott.
This study is longitudinal, tracking its participants over time. “We reconnected with them [recently],” said Scott. The team hopes to track “how their symptoms have changed.”
According to Dr. Lloyd, even the most common of these symptoms can be debilitating. One, which Lloyd described as “crushing fatigue,” can make tasks like getting out of bed or traversing one’s home nearly impossible.
“This is not just ‘I didn’t get enough sleep, I’m tired’ or ‘I’ve got too much going on, and I have to write a paper, and it’s due at midnight’ kind of tired,” Lloyd explained. “This is ‘I can’t get out of bed’ or ‘I got to the bathroom, and now I need to rest for half an hour.’”
The next most common are neurological symptoms, frequently referred to as “brain fog.” Lloyd described this as “essentially the kind of mental fuzziness most people will get when they’re fighting off a cold or flu.”
“You know your brain is there, it just doesn’t want to show up for work.”
Pain is another common symptom of Long COVID, and according to Lloyd: “People who have had the flu will be sort of familiar with the early stages where everything just hurts… except it doesn’t go away.”
“This is huge and if you think about it not going away for weeks and weeks, that is emotionally difficult, it’s socially difficult, it’s difficult on families,” observed Lloyd.
For the researchers, there is no shortage of data they can use in the pursuit of the many unanswered questions surrounding Long COVID. “So many people are jumping on this survey,” said Lloyd. Within days the second survey had already amassed over 100 respondents.
In fact, preliminary results about Canada’s response to Long COVID, the most common symptoms among Canadians, and potential risk factors are already awaiting publication. “People suffering from complex multi-system problems want more integrated and efficient healthcare,” said Lloyd on participants feedback about their healthcare experience.
“From the more biomedical side of things, the symptoms for Canadians suffering with Long COVID [are] very similar to the symptoms of people everywhere else in the world… which is about what you would expect.”
“The risk factors appear to be much the same. So we’re picking up the… sort of pattern that, obviously, if you have pre-existing heart disease or lung impairment… you’re at higher risk of both getting COVID and Long COVID… we’re [also] picking up some evidence that prior exposure to Epstein-Barr Virus is a risk factor.”
Epstein-Barr Virus, the infection best known for causing infectious mononucleosis or “mono,” has recently become the subject of scrutiny by numerous groups of researchers studying Long COVID risk factors.
The virus’ ability to enhance the risk of Long COVID can be explained by viral reactivation. “Your immune system is busy fighting COVID and then, all of a sudden, the Epstein-Barr Virus, which is lurking there, is suddenly… back” in the form of a case of mono, explained Dr. Lloyd.
The aforementioned surveys are still open to the public, and the researchers are encouraging people to get involved. “For the first survey we’re happy to hear from healthy people too, you’re called a control. So, if you have had COVID and recovered, or if you’ve never had COVID, please take the first survey… be a data point please.”
The English version of the survey can be found online at: https://limesurvey.mta.ca/index.php/876233?lang=en
Its French counterpart can be found at: https://limesurvey.mta.ca/index.php/876233?lang=fr