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MDs’ One-Word Summary of Long COVID Progress: ‘Frustration’

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Stuart Malcolm, MD, a primary care physician who practices in Oregon and northern California, started seeing patients with long COVID early in the pandemic. Back then, he was frustrated by the obstacles and lack of standard diagnostic tests and treatments. Four years later, well, he still is.

“Something I learned the last few years is the logistics to get people care is really, really hard,” he said. “There’s a lot of frustration. It’s mostly frustration.”

For long COVID doctors and patients, there has been little to no progress addressing the challenges, leaving many discouraged. Researchers and clinicians now have a greater understanding of what health agencies formally call post-COVID condition, but the wide spectrum of symptoms, slow progress in launching pharmacologic clinical trials, and the research toward understanding the underlying causes mean standardized diagnostic tests and definitive treatments remain elusive.

“The frustration is that we aren’t able to help everyone with our current knowledge base. And I think the frustration lies not just with us physicians but also with patients because they’re at the point where if they tried everything, literally everything and haven’t gotten better,” said Zijian Chen, MD, director of the Mount Sinai Center for Post-COVID Care in New York City.

Wanted: More Funding, More Doctors, More Clinics

Between 10% and 20% of the estimated hundreds of millions of people infected worldwide with SARS-CoV-2 in the first 2 years went on to develop long-term symptoms. While many recover over time, doctors who have treated long COVID since 2020 said they see some patients still wrestling with the condition after 4 years.

The latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Household Pulse Survey, taken between March 5 and April 1, 2024, estimated that nearly 7% of the adult population — more than 18 million people — currently have long COVID. Data from other countries also suggest that millions have been living with long COVID for years now, and hundreds of thousands have seen their day-to-day activities significantly affected.

There is an urgent need for more funding, long COVID clinicians, multidisciplinary clinics, and education for non–long COVID physicians and specialists, doctors said. Instead, funding remains limited, clinics are closing, wait times are “horrendously long,” patients are left in limbo, and physicians are burning out.

“What’s changed in some ways is that there’s even less access to COVID rehab, which sounds crazy because there was very little to begin with,” said Alexandra Rendely, MD, a physical medicine and rehabilitation physician with the interdisciplinary Toronto Rehab, a part of the University Health Network of teaching hospitals in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

“Patients are still being diagnosed every day, yet the resources available are becoming less and less.”

COVID-19 money earmarked during the pandemic was mostly limited to temporary emergency measures. As those funds dwindled, governments and institutions have decreased financial support. The Long COVID Moonshot campaign, organized by patients with long COVID, is pushing Congress to support $1 billion in annual research funding to close the financial chasm.

The Clinical Trial Conundrum

While long COVID clinics have come a long way in helping patients, gaps remain. Doctors may be unwilling to prescribe off-label treatments without proper clinical trials due to the potential risks and liabilities involved or due to the controversial or unconventional nature of the therapies, said Malcolm, who left his primary care practice more than 2 years ago to focus on long COVID.

In the absence of standard treatments, Malcolm and other doctors said they must take a trial-and-error approach in treating patients with long COVID that centers on addressing symptoms and not the underlying condition.

“There are actually a lot of treatments and a lot of them are not curative, but they can help people,” he said.

Malcolm, who is a medical director at Real Time Health Monitoring, a private clinic in the San Francisco Bay Area that specializes in long COVID and myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), said it was important for him to be with a clinical team that understood and was supportive of his treatment decisions and was able to offer clinical support for those treatments if needed.

For physicians looking for clinical data before prescribing certain medications, the wait may be long. More than $1.5 billion in US federal funding has been earmarked to study long COVID, but the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has faced criticism from patients and scientists alike for its slow progress and emphasis on observational studies instead of research that could unravel the biological roots of long COVID. Among the clinical trials announced by the NIH’s RECOVER initiative, only a handful involve studying pharmaceutical treatments.

A 2023 editorial published in The Lancet called out the “dismal state of clinical research relative to the substantial burden of [long COVID]” and said, “we are clearly lacking tested pharmacological interventions that treat the underlying pathophysiology.” At the time of publication, it noted that of the 386 long COVID trials listed on ClinicalTrials.gov, only 12 were actually testing pharmacologic interventions.

There are also diagnostic and insurance barriers. The specialized tests that can detect long COVID anomalies are neither commonly known by primary care practitioners nor easily requested at the local lab, can be expensive, and are typically not covered by insurance, Malcolm explained.

Patients with long COVID also have the added barrier of being unable to advocate as easily because of their energy limitations, doctors said. Patients may appear outwardly fine, but fatigue and brain fog are among the many problems that cannot be measured in appearances. The condition has upended lives, some losing jobs, even homes, and the mental toll is why there is a “not insignificant” suicide rate.

One Patient’s 4-Year Journey

Charlie McCone, 34, used to be a tennis player and an active musician. But he’s spent the past 4 years mostly housebound, grappling with the aftermath of a SARS-CoV-2 infection he contracted in March 2020. He went from biking daily to work 10 miles and back to having at most 2 hours of energy per day.

In the first year alone, McCone saw more than two dozen doctors and specialists. The conditions now associated with long COVID, like ME/CFS, mast cell activation syndrome (a condition in which a patient experiences episodes of allergic symptoms such as hives, swelling, low blood pressure, and difficulty breathing), or dysautonomia (conditions that affect the autonomic nervous system, which controls automatic processes in the body) were not on physicians’ radars.

Then in 2021, he became bedbound for more than half a year after a Delta variant reinfection. He developed neurologic symptoms, including incapacitating fatigue, post-exertional malaise (where symptoms worsened after minimal physical or mental activity), left-sided weakness, and cognitive impairment. He stopped working altogether. But the worst was the shortness of breath he felt 24/7, even at rest. A battery of lab tests revealed nothing abnormal. He tried numerous drugs and the classic respiratory treatments.

McCone eventually connected with Malcolm over X and developed what he describes as an effective patient-doctor collaboration. When studies came out suggesting microclots were a common issue with patients with long COVID and positive outcomes were reported from anticoagulant therapy, they knew it could be one of the answers.

“After 3 weeks on [the antiplatelet drug], I was like, oh my god, my lungs are finally opening up,” said McCone. He has taken the medication for more than a year and a half, and some days he doesn’t even think about his respiratory symptoms.

“That trial-and-error process is just really long and hard and costly,” said Malcolm.

Today, fatigue and cognitive stamina are McCone’s main challenges, and he is far from recovered.

“[I had a] very fulfilling, happy life and now, it’s hard to think about. I’ve come a long way with my mental health and all this, but I’ve lost 4 years,” McCone said. “The prospect of me being here when I’m 40 seems very real…so it’s pretty devastating.”

Lessons Learned, Hope Amid Ongoing Research

Despite the daunting obstacle, doctors said the science has come a long way for a new disease. We now know long COVID is likely caused by a combination of triggers, including viral reservoir in the tissue, inflammation, autoimmunity, and microclots; severity of infection is not necessarily an accurate risk factor predictor — long COVID can strike even those who had a mild infection; upward of 200 symptoms have been identified; and we know more about potential biomarkers that could lead to better diagnostic tools.

Unlike many other diseases and conditions with standard treatment protocols, long COVID treatments are typically aimed at addressing individual symptoms.

“It is very detailed and individualized to the patient’s specific symptoms and to the patient’s specific needs,” Rendely said. Symptoms can also fluctuate, relapse, or wax and wane, for example, so what ails a patient at their first doctor’s appointment could be completely different at the next appointment 2 months later.

Doctors are still hopeful the RECOVER research, which includes trials that look at autonomic and cognitive dysfunctions, will pave the way for more effective long COVID therapies. In Canada, Rendely is also eying the RECLAIM trial that is currently testing the effectiveness of pentoxifylline, which helps blood flow, and ibudilast, an anti-inflammatory drug.

Doctors are also hopeful when they see patients who have made “tremendous gains” or even full recoveries through their clinics. “It’s a new diagnosis, so I always tell my patients to think of this as a journey because I’m learning along with you,” said Jai Marathe, MD, an infectious disease physician at Boston Medical Center and an assistant professor of infectious diseases at Boston University Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine.

“Now we have 4 years of experience, but at the same time, no two long COVID patients are alike.”

Long COVID has also changed the way physicians view healthcare and how they practice medicine.

“I am a completely different person than I used to be because of this illness, and I don’t even have it. That is how profoundly it has affected how I view the universe,” said Malcolm. “I’ve been doing this for 4 years, and I’m very hopeful. But I don’t think about this in terms of months anymore. I think about this in terms of years.”

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