UK: £18.5 million to tackle long COVID through research

People experiencing the longer-term effects of long COVID will benefit from £18.5 million to fund research projects to help better understand the causes, symptoms and treatment of the condition.

The funding will be given to 4 studies to identify the causes of long COVID and effective therapies to treat people who experience chronic symptoms of the disease.

The projects were chosen following a UK-wide call to find ambitious and comprehensive research programmes to help address the physical and mental health effects of COVID-19 in those experiencing longer-term symptoms but who do not require admittance into hospital.

Long COVID can present with clusters of symptoms that are often overlapping and/or fluctuating. A systematic review has highlighted 55 different long-term effects but common symptoms of long COVID include breathlessness, headaches, cough, fatigue and cognitive impairment or ‘brain fog’. There is also emerging evidence that some people experience organ damage.

Approximately 1 in 10 people with COVID-19 continue to experience symptoms and impaired quality of life beyond 12 weeks (‘long COVID’).

Health and Social Care Secretary, Matt Hancock said:

I am acutely aware of the lasting and debilitating impact long COVID can have on people of all ages, irrespective of the extent of the initial symptoms.

Fatigue, headaches and breathlessness can affect people for months after their COVID-19 infection regardless of whether they required hospital admission initially.

In order to effectively help these individuals we need to better understand long COVID and identify therapeutics that can help recovery. This funding will kick-start 4 ambitious projects to do just that.

Amy, 27, has been experiencing ongoing breathing problems after first contracting COVID-19 3 months ago. She said:

I expected to be fully recovered within 2 weeks, but I actually isolated for 3 weeks because I just didn’t feel comfortable going out. I was still really poorly.

At my age, I didn’t expect to suffer symptoms for more than just a few days. Feeling that poorly for that long, hearing all the horror stories and things, I wondered if I would actually go back to normal.

I exercise a lot and it was really scary thinking that I might not actually get back to that again. It’s quite shocking to me actually that 3 months on I’m still not really myself.

Chief Medical Officer for England and Head of the NIHR, Professor Chris Whitty said:

Good research is absolutely pivotal in understanding, diagnosing and then treating any illness, to ease symptoms and ultimately improve lives.

This research, jointly funded through the NIHR and UKRI, will increase our knowledge of how and why the virus causes some people to suffer long-term effects following a COVID-19 infection – and will be an important tool in developing more effective treatments for patients.

Health Minister, Lord Bethell said:

The UK is at the forefront of scientific research and innovation when it comes to the treatment of COVID-19. This work is vital in helping us to build on our knowledge and improve the treatment of the longer-term impacts of the virus.

This research will make the best use of available evidence to help us identify the causes, the consequences and most importantly the best treatments to help people recover from COVID-19 in the long term.

An independent panel of research experts and patients with long COVID recommended the following 4 studies for funding, at a cost of approximately £18.5 million:

REACT long COVID (REACT-LC): led by Professor Paul Elliott, Imperial College London – £5.4 million over 3 years. The study will involve people in the community who have taken part in the REACT study of the virus that causes COVID-19. Data will be analysed to find common factors to examine why some people get long COVID and others do not. The biological studies will help us understand what causes persistent symptoms and may point to possible treatments
Therapies for long COVID in non-hospitalised individuals: from symptoms, patient-reported outcomes and immunology to targeted therapies (The TLC Study): led by Dr Shamil Haroon and Professor Melanie Calvert, University of Birmingham – £2.3 million over 2 years. The study will identify which treatments are most likely to benefit people with particular symptoms of long COVID and test supportive treatments to improve their quality of life
Characterisation, determinants, mechanisms and consequences of the long-term effects of COVID-19: providing the evidence base for health care services: led by Professor Nishi Chaturvedi, University College London – £9.6 million over 3 years. The study will use data from more than 60,000 people to help define long COVID and improve diagnosis. It will also explain why some people get the condition, the typical effects on a person’s health and ability to work, and the factors that affect recovery to inform the development of treatments offered to patients
Non-hospitalised children and young people with long COVID (The CLoCk Study): Professor Sir Terence Stephenson, UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health – £1.4 million over 3 years. The study will teach us more about long COVID among children, how it can be diagnosed and how to treat it
Professor Fiona Watt, Executive Chair of the Medical Research Council, part of UKRI, said:

There is increasing medical evidence and patient testimony showing that a significant minority of people who contract COVID suffer chronic symptoms for months after initially falling ill, irrespective of whether they were hospitalised. These 4 large-scale projects will work with affected individuals to better understand and address these debilitating long-term impacts.

Patients with long COVID and members of the public were involved throughout the process of deciding which research proposals to fund.

The government, through the NIHR and UKRI, is also jointly funding major studies to characterise acute and longer term disease in hospitalised patients.

The Post-HOSPitalisation COVID-19 study (PHOSP-COVID) was backed by £8.4 million in funding and looks into the long-term physical and mental health implications of COVID-19 to support the development of new measures to treat NHS patients with coronavirus.

Both funders will continue to consider research proposals on long COVID.

NHS England launched new specialist long COVID NHS clinics across the country, providing assessment for adults, children and young people alike. These clinics will play an invaluable role by helping medical experts assess, diagnose and treat thousands of people suffering with the debilitating long-term health implications of this virus.

There are now 69 specialist clinics operating across the country, supported with £10 million funding, with more due to open shortly.

The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) has issued official guidance on best practice for recognising, investigating and rehabilitating patients with long COVID.


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