£19.6 million awarded to new research to help treat long COVID
People experiencing long COVID will benefit from a comprehensive package of new NIHR-funded research to help improve understanding of the condition, from diagnosis and treatment through to rehabilitation and recovery.
An extensive range of 15 projects from across the UK have been awarded a total of £19.6 million to examine causes of long COVID, trial drugs to tackle it, and investigate symptoms such as breathlessness and ‘brain fog’ that have become synonymous with the condition. Studies will also evaluate health services, such as long COVID clinics, and explore ways patients can monitor the condition to optimise their recovery and return to work.
Recent research shows that as many as a third of people who report being infected with the coronavirus also report long COVID. The condition can present with a number of ongoing symptoms including fatigue, breathlessness and cognitive impairment known as ‘brain fog’.
NIHR’s long COVID themed review, which considered over 300 papers and academic opinion pieces from across the world, indicated that long COVID could be up to four syndromes: post-ICU syndrome; long-term organ damage; post-viral syndrome, and, potentially, an entirely novel syndrome that could more specifically be identified as ‘long COVID’.
Health and Social Care Secretary, Sajid Javid, said: “Long COVID can have serious and debilitating long-term effects for thousands of people across the UK, which can make daily life extremely challenging. This new research is absolutely essential to improve diagnosis and treatments and will be life-changing for those who are battling long-term symptoms of the virus.
“It will build on our existing support with over 80 long COVID assessment services open across England as part of a £100 million expansion of care for those suffering from the condition, and over £50 million invested in research to better understand the lasting effects of this condition.”
Diagnosing and treating long COVID
One of the new studies, STIMULATE-ICP, led by University College London Hospitals NHS Trust and University College London, will be the largest long COVID trial to date, recruiting more than 4,500 people with the condition. With £6.8 million of funding, the project will test the effectiveness of existing drugs to treat long COVID by measuring the effect of 3 months’ treatment on symptoms, mental health and other outcomes such as returning to work. It will also assess the use of MRI scans to help diagnose potential organ damage, as well as enhanced rehabilitation through an app to track their symptoms.
Chief investigator, Professor Amitava Banerjee said: “Individuals with long COVID have long been asking for recognition, research and rehabilitation. In our two-year study across six clinical sites around England, we will be working with patients, health professionals, scientists across different disciplines, as well as industry partners, to test and evaluate a new ‘integrated care’ pathway from diagnosis to rehabilitation, and potential drug treatments.
The EXPLAIN project, led by Professor Fergus Gleeson at Oxford University and funded with £1.8 million, will seek to diagnose ongoing breathlessness in coronavirus patients who were not admitted to hospital, using MRI scans to trace inhaled gas moving into and out of the lungs to assess disease severity and whether breathlessness improves over time.
Prof Gleeson said: “Following on from our earlier work using hyperpolarised xenon MRI in patients following hospitalisation with COVID-19 pneumonia, where we showed that their lungs may be damaged even when all other tests were normal, it is critical to determine how many patients with long COVID and breathlessness have damaged lungs, and if and how long it takes for their lungs to recover.
"Hyperpolarised xenon MRI takes a few minutes and does not require radiation exposure, so it may be repeated over time to see lung changes. Using this technique, we can see if there has been damage to the airways in the lungs, or to the areas where oxygen crosses into the bloodstream, which appears to be the area damaged by COVID-19.”
For more details of the research projects click here.