The risks of long Covid mean catching the virus is like “playing Russian Roulette” for the young and healthy, a leading immunologist has said.
A panel of health workers suffering with the long-term effects of the virus described pain, fatigue and debilitating nerve damage.
They warned against a “black and white” view of Covid as an illness that was either mild or deadly.
An estimated 5-10% of patients remain ill two months after being infected.
It’s true that, for the majority of people, Covid is relatively short and mild. But a sizeable minority are left with symptoms from the annoying to the debilitating.
“Long Covid” is the term loosely used to describe an array of symptoms experienced by people after their initial coronavirus infection.
These range from breathlessness, fatigue and loss of taste or smell to organ damage.
Some have developed chronic diarrhoea, diabetes or blood clots.
There is even some early evidence of Covid infection causing changes to the brain’s structure.
Dr Nathalie MacDermott, a paediatric doctor who believes she was exposed to Covid by a colleague, has been left with nerve pain that makes it difficult for her to walk – and suspected damage to her spinal cord.
She called for “awareness from some of the younger public who think they are invincible”.
Dr MacDermott was giving evidence to a group of cross-party MPs alongside other health professionals with long Covid.
“I’m 38 and wonder if I will ever be able to walk properly again without crutches or will I need a wheelchair,” she said.
“Yes you may not die but you might have long term problems.”
How many people have long Covid?
The true number is not known.
Dr Nisreen Alwan, a public health doctor and professor from Southampton with long Covid said the potential number of people affected was “staggering”.
She suggested if 10% of Covid sufferers developed long-term symptoms then there could be 40,000 new cases from the past week alone.
The Office for National Statistics published experimental statistics looking at how many people might be affected, but drop-outs from the survey meant the stats body couldn’t put a firm figure on it.
Early experimental data put it at one in 10, however, while the ZOE Symptom App study estimated about one in 20 had symptoms after eight weeks, falling to one in 50 after three months.
Death not the only bad outcome
“We talk about deaths as the only bad outcome,” Dr Alwan said.
But she suggested “previously healthy people” could be left with disabilities that affected their ability to work and care for their families.
“We do not have a system to record this or measure the burden,” she said.
Dr Alwan suggested a patient register of long Covid could be arrived at by following up and measuring who recovered – perhaps using text messages from their GPs.
A common refrain from the panel was how little was known about long Covid – its biological mechanisms and how many people suffered from it.
Many said they had found support in online communities on Facebook.
Prof Danny Altmann, an immunologist at Imperial College London, said it was a “chapter of the medical textbooks that hasn’t yet been written and it needs to be”.
“It’s a real kind of Russian roulette,” he said.
Even if you are “low risk and might not die… you do not know if you will be better in a few weeks or one of the ones on crutches or in a wheelchair”.