At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, our understanding of the disease was minimal at best. Because it was new to medical scientists, the way it operated within humans, how it infiltrated the body, and the way it affected survivors was all but theory until enough evidence was gathered. Two years in, that evidence has found that not only are survivors equipped with antibodies against the virus, but some are also suffering from a condition known as long COVID.
Until recently, diagnosing long COVID was based on examining people who had recovered from the virus, yet remained plagued with lingering symptoms. That may all change now, though, as medical researchers have discovered something interesting in the blood of patients suffering long-term consequences of the infection. Because of this, a new test may be possible to help identify past infections and diagnose long COVID cases in those who continue to suffer from symptoms.
COVID autoantibodies and what they mean for the future of testing
The research surrounding rogue antibodies in COVID patients that had persistent symptoms comes from the Imperial College of London. Researchers found that autoantibodies could be found in people with long COVID, but not in those who had not been infected with COVID-19 at any point, or in those who had become infected and recovered from the viral infection completely within a short time.
These autoantibodies that were detected are not like typical antibodies that are designed to help remember certain pathogens and fight them off if they infiltrate the body at a future date. Rather, autoantibodies end up attacking a person’s healthy tissues by mistake. When this happens, the case of mistaken identity leads to illness and ongoing damage due to the attack on the body’s own system.
The relevance of long COVID rogue antibodies
The abovementioned research collected blood samples from COVID patients as well as people who had never had the virus. The samples were then tested to check for any sort of antibody present, and whether or not there were marked differences between those who had COVID antibodies and recovered, and those who had them and remained ill with long COVID.
The difference found was that the immune system in those with long COVID was essentially misfiring. Instead of producing typical antibodies, it produced autoantibodies in people with long COVID, which is what led to their prolonged symptoms. The damage inflicted by such autoantibodies can occur to organs, tissues, and even the immune system. This means that those who have long COVID may not even be equipped with their own antibodies to fight off a second infection if they contract COVID again.
Consequences of long COVID
Because of the new repercussions being discovered in line with research surrounding long COVID, the idea of easing restrictions and allowing more people to become infected with the virus does not seem to be the best course of action, even if new variants have become more mild.
This is especially true when we consider that as many as an estimated 10% of people who contract COVID-19 may go on to develop long COVID. In the event that 100,000 cases occur each day, that means 10,000 people who are gearing up to experience the aftereffects of long COVID, putting a lot of strain on the quality of life of individuals as well as the health care system.
Research has also shown that many individuals with long COVID take upwards of 35 weeks to recover from the symptoms of the initial infection. The same research also painted a grim picture of how a person can function with long COVID, stating that the majority of people experienced significant disability and were out of work and experiencing symptom burden by the seven-month mark.
Is there a blood test for long COVID in our future?
The latest research that has been able to identify the difference between those with long COVID and those who have recovered from the infection completely is now clear-cut. The long-term implications of long COVID are clear and evident in research, but up until recently, no concrete diagnostic process has been determined.
While there is still no cure for either COVID-19 or long COVID, having a diagnostic tool may help those suffering from the long-term effects find relief sooner simply by knowing what they’re dealing with.
Those who worked on the aforementioned study that initially identified the rogue antibodies in patients with long-term infection have stated to news outlets that although the ability to design a blood test for rogue antibodies is still in its infancy, they are certainly optimistic that in six months’ time, a blood test will be available and accessible through general practitioners.