Cornell University: $9.8M NIH Grant drives clinical research into long COVID

Weill Cornell Medicine has been awarded a $9.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to lead a consortium of health care institutions that are analyzing nationwide health data in an effort to unravel the complexities of long COVID.

“We need it to be able to answer important questions about this new condition,” said principal investigator Dr. Rainu Kaushal, senior associate dean for clinical research and chair of population health sciences at Weill Cornell Medicine and physician-in-chief of population health sciences at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center.

“The goal is to characterize post-acute COVID and determine who is at risk,” Kaushal said. “Who gets it? What is the life course? What treatments prevent it or ameliorate symptoms? It’s important that we advance our understanding so patients with post-acute COVID can be recognized and treated.”

The one-year NIH award is part of a federal initiative called Researching COVID to Enhance Recovery (RECOVER), a national effort to define, treat and prevent the long-term effects of COVID-19. NYU Langone Health is leading the RECOVER Clinical Science Core, through which multidisciplinary collaborative investigator groups, such as the one led by Kaushal, are conducting their research.

In patients with long COVID – or post-acute sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 infection (PASC), as it’s known in the medical community – symptoms such as “brain fog,” sleep disturbances, fevers and gastrointestinal problems can persist for weeks or months after infection. Current data suggests that 10% to 30% of patients diagnosed with COVID-19 will experience long COVID, but the biological factors that underlie the condition are unclear.

To better understand why some patients recover from COVID-19 infection while others have persistent symptoms, investigators will tap into data collected by the National Patient-Centered Clinical Research Network (PCORnet), which comprises eight consortiums of health care institutions from around the country; Kaushal leads the New York-based INSIGHT Clinical Research Network.

Through its members, PCORnet has amassed deidentified records from more than a million patients nationwide who have had laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 infections. This database will continue to expand as more patient information is collected monthly.

With Weill Cornell Medicine as the study hub, RECOVER investigators from 41 peer institutions will use this patient information to better understand long COVID in adults. The data, in conjunction with findings from more than 200 published studies and clinical observations stemming from physicians actively treating patients, will support investigator-led efforts to develop algorithms to identify COVID patients with PASC and determine who is most at risk for developing the condition. Investigators will also use the data to examine disparities between different demographic populations and discern COVID-19 vaccines’ effects on PASC development.

A parallel research effort, coordinated by Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, will focus on health data from children who’ve had COVID-19 and developed the rare but serious condition known as multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C), which is a form of long COVID.

“At this level and scope, this is very much groundbreaking,” Kaushal said. “I applaud the NIH’s commitment to utilizing health data science and big data to drive rapid, meaningful insights into disease characterizations.”

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