Scientists join forces to study theories behind long COVID

A boy gets tested for COVID-19 after vaccinated family members tested positive for the coronavirus, in North Miami, Florida on Aug 9, 2021. (MARTA LAVANDIER / AP)

LONDON / CHICAGO – Top scientists from leading academic centers are banding together to answer a key question about the root cause of long COVID-19 – whether fragments of the coronavirus persist in the tissues of some individuals.

The effort, known as the Long Covid Research Initiative, aims to streamline research and quickly pivot to clinical trials of potential treatments. By sharing diverse skill sets and resources, the group hopes to uncover the scientific underpinnings of the disease and use that to design evidence-based trials.

Long COVID is a complex, poorly understood, disabling condition that can last for many months after an initial COVID infection, leaving many of its sufferers unable to work

Long COVID-19 is a complex, poorly understood, disabling condition that can last for many months after an initial COVID-19 infection, leaving many of its sufferers unable to work. It affects nearly one in five American adults who have had COVID-19, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The initiative is backed by an initial $15 million from Balvi, a scientific investment fund formed by Vitalik Buterin, co-founder of the blockchain platform Ethereum.

It includes scientists from Harvard University, Stanford University, the University of California, San Francisco, Yale University and the J. Craig Venter Institute.

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"The first thing you need to understand in long COVID-19 is if patients still have the virus in them or not," said Dr. Amy Proal of the nonprofit PolyBio Research Foundation, an expert in infection-associated chronic disease who will serve as chief scientific officer of the initiative.

Currently, there are no proven treatments for long COVID-19, which affects more than 150 million people globally.

A growing body of evidence points to the presence of virus in tissues that continue to provoke a response from the immune system, she said.

That may help explain the cascade of some 200 symptoms associated with long COVID-19, including pain, fever, headaches, cognitive impairment, shortness of breath and exhaustion after minimal amounts of activity.

Researchers will use advanced imaging and gene-sequencing techniques looking for evidence of the virus in tissues and analyzing its affects on the immune system.

If viral persistence is proven to cause long COVID-19, the research initiative aims to test antiviral treatments, such as Pfizer Inc's Paxlovid as well as other types of drugs that modulate the immune system.

"Antivirals are our top clinical trials target," Proal said, adding the group would like to study Paxlovid. She could not say whether Pfizer is working with the group.

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Some case studies have shown Paxlovid improved symptoms in a handful of long COVID-19 patients. But large, well-designed trials are needed to prove the treatments help and identify which patients are most likely to benefit. 

A Pfizer spokesman said the company is "actively exploring" potential collaborative studies, but would not elaborate.

The initiative was organized by a group of long COVID-19 patients with backgrounds in finance, start-ups and technology, who are leading the fundraising efforts, such as the initial US$15 million grant, as well as others yet to be disclosed, said Henry Scott-Green, one of the organizers.

The goal is to accelerate research by cutting across institutional silos and breaking down funding bottlenecks.

Patients wear personal protective equipment while maintaining social distancing as they wait in line for a COVID-19 test at Elmhurst Hospital Center, Wednesday, March 25, 2020, in New York. (JOHN MINCHILLO / AP)


New York state on Wednesday ended a 28-month-old COVID-19 mandate requiring masks on trains, buses and other modes of public transit, as well as at airports and in ride-share vehicles, Governor Kathy Hochul said.

"Starting today masks will be optional," Hochul said at a news conference, citing recent revised guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "We have to restore some normalcy to our lives…. Masks are encouraged but optional."

Hochul said the mask requirements were also being lifted for taxis and ride-share vehicles, airports, homeless shelters, correctional facilities, and detention centers.

New York first adopted the mandate in April 2020 as COVID-19 was rampaging in the New York City area

New York first adopted the mandate in April 2020 as COVID-19 was rampaging in the New York City area.

"It's always been a visible reminder that something is not normal here, and it was there for the right reason. It protected health and now we're in a far different place," Hochul said.

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In recent months, however, many riders in New York had stopped observing the mask policy.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority said it had updated electronic signs on subways and in stations to make clear mask use is now optional.

"It became more and more difficult to justify and to enforce a mask requirement as so much of the city and so many other places were opening up," MTA Chief Executive Janno Lieber said at a news conference.

In April, the Biden administration decided to no longer enforce a US mask mandate on public transportation after a federal judge in Florida ruled the directive was unlawful. New York declined to adopt the Biden policy in April.

Hochul said masks will still be required in some places like adult care facilities and some other medical facilities.

The Justice Department appealed the Florida judge's ruling invalidating the transportation mask mandate, but a federal appeals court has not yet set the case for oral arguments.

This file illustration photo taken on Nov 23, 2020 shows a bottle reading "Vaccine COVID-19" and a syringe are pictured next to the Pfizer and BioNTech logo. (JOEL SAGET / AFP)


Pfizer has donated 100,000 courses of its COVID-19 antiviral treatment Paxlovid to a new group aiming to improve access to the drug in low and middle-income countries.

The Covid Treatment Quick Start Consortium, set up by organizations including Duke University and the Clinton Health Access Initiative with support from the pharmaceutical company, said it is working with ministries of health in 10 countries to set up national test-and-treat programmes.

It aims for high-risk patients in some of the countries to start treatment by the end of this month, the group said in a statement on Wednesday.

While Paxlovid is widely available in many rich countries, availability has been severely restricted in poorer ones, echoing the disparities in the global COVID-19 response.