Thousands of COVID-19 patients continue to suffer serious, debilitating and lingering symptoms many months after their initial bout of infection, with major social, health and economic consequences, European health experts said on Thursday.
Publishing a World Health Organization-led guidance report on the condition, often referred to as “long COVID” or “post-COVID syndrome,” experts said around one in 10 COVID-19 patients are still unwell 12 weeks after their acute infection, and many suffer symptoms for far longer.
“This is a condition that can be extremely debilitating. Those suffering from it describe a varying combination of overlapping symptoms … (including) chest and muscle pain, fatigue, shortness of breath … brain fog (and) many others,” said Martin McKee, a professor at the European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies who led the report.
Hans Kluge, the WHO’s European regional director, said long-COVID could have “severe social, economic, health and occupational consequences.”
“The burden is real and it is significant,” he said.
COVID-19 is caused by a virus called SARS-CoV-2, and as it spread around the world, it mutated into new forms that are more quickly and easily transmitted through small water droplets in the air. Canadian health officials are most worried about variants that can slip past human immune systems because of a different shape in the spiky protein that latches onto our cells. The bigger fear is that future mutations could be vaccine-resistant, which would make it necessary to tweak existing drugs or develop a new “multivalent” vaccine that works against many types, which could take months or years.
Not all variants are considered equal threats: Only those proven to be more contagious or resistant to physical-distancing measures are considered by the World Health Organization to be “variants of concern.” Five of these been found in Canada so far. The WHO refers to them by a sequence of letters and numbers known as Pango nomenclature, but in May of 2021, it also assigned them Greek letters that experts felt would be easier to remember.
- Country of origin: Britain
- Traits: Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are still mostly effective against it, studies suggest, but for full protection, the booster is essential: With only a first dose, the effectiveness is only about 66 per cent.
- Spread in Canada: First detected in Ontario’s Durham Region in December. It is now Canada’s most common variant type. Every province has had at least one case; Ontario, Quebec and the western provinces have had thousands.
- Country of origin: South Africa
- Traits: Some vaccines (including Pfizer’s and Oxford-AstraZeneca’s) appear to be less effective but researchers are still trying to learn more and make sure future versions of their drugs can be modified to fight it.
- Spread in Canada: First case recorded in Mississauga in February. All but a few provinces have had at least one case, but nowhere near as many as B.1.1.7.
- Country of origin: Brazil
- Traits: Potentially able to reinfect people who’ve recovered from COVID-19.
- Spread in Canada: B.C. has had hundreds of cases, the largest known concentration of P.1 outside Brazil. More outbreaks have been detected in Ontario and the Prairies.
DELTA (B.1.617 AND B.1.617.2)
- Country of origin: India
- Traits: Spreads more easily. Single-dosed people are less protected against it than those with both vaccine doses.
- Spread in Canada: All but a few provinces have recorded cases, but B.C.’s total has been the largest so far.
- Country of origin: Peru
- Traits: Spreads more easily. Health officials had been monitoring it since last August, but the WHO only designated it a variant of concern in June of 2021.
- Spread in Canada: A handful of travel-related cases were first detected in early July.
If I’m sick, how do I know whether I have a variant?
Health officials need to genetically sequence test samples to see whether it’s the regular virus or a variant, and not everyone’s sample will get screened. It’s safe to assume that, whatever the official variant tallies are in your province, the real numbers are higher. But for your purposes, it doesn’t matter whether you contract a variant or not: Act as though you’re highly contagious, and that you have been since before your symptoms appeared (remember, COVID-19 can be spread asymptomatically). Self-isolate for two weeks. If you have the COVID Alert app, use it to report your test result so others who may have been exposed to you will know to take precautions.
Need more answers? Email email@example.com
He urged health authorities to listen to patients’ concerns, take them seriously, and establish services to help them.
Growing evidence from around the world points to many thousands of people experiencing long-COVID. The condition appears not to be linked to whether a patient had a severe or mild infection.
An initial report by Britain’s National Institute for Health Research last year suggested long-COVID may be not one condition, but multiple syndromes causing a roller coaster of symptoms affecting the body and mind.
Kluge noted that as with any new disease, much remains unknown about COVID-19.
“We need to listen and … understand. The sufferers of post-COVID conditions need to be heard if we are to understand the long-term consequences and recovery from COVID-19,” he said. “This is a clear priority for WHO (and) it should be for every health authority.”
Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters and editors.