Long COVID patients are turning to blood-washing as an invasive “treatment” for their condition, says a new study, despite there being little in the way of evidence that it could be an effective therapy. A new report from the BMJ and ITV says that people in the UK are traveling abroad for the invasive treatment, some of whom are stumbling across the idea in forums and on social media platforms.
Blood washing, or apheresis, is the process in which a person’s blood is removed through a needle in one arm, passed through a filter, and then returned to the body through the other arm. It's sometimes used for people with blood and lipid disorders, but there's not yet any concrete evidence that it can benefit patients with long COVID.
Despite this, clinics in countries such as Cyprus, Germany, and Switzerland are offering blood washing to long COVID patients who are experiencing prolonged symptoms following infection with the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the pathogen which causes COVID-19.
A blood washing case study included in the report details the experience of Gitte Boumeester, a trainee psychiatrist from the Netherlands, who quit her job due to the severity of her long COVID symptoms. After learning about blood washing on a Facebook forum, Bourmeester traveled to The Long COVID Clinic in Cyprus for treatment.
Her bill came to over €50,000 ($50,212) and included six apheresis sessions and nine rounds of hyperbaric oxygen therapy, but Bourmeester returned home with no improvement to her symptoms.
A second case study detailed the story of Chris Witham, a 45-year-old businessman from the UK who traveled to Germany for blood washing treatments that totaled around £7,000 ($8,300). “I'd have sold my house and given it away to get better, without a second thought,” he said in a statement.
Blood washing as a therapy for long COVID could be linked to the suggestion of some research that microclots in the plasma associated with the condition could be what’s causing the ongoing symptoms. However, whether these microclots are a trigger of the symptoms or merely a biomarker of illness isn’t known.
“If we don’t know the mechanisms by which the microclots form and whether or not they are causative of disease, it seems premature to design a treatment to take the microclots away, as both apheresis and triple anticoagulation are not without risks, the obvious one being bleeding,” said Robert Ariens, professor of vascular biology at the University of Leeds School of Medicine.
Boumeester and Witham are among thousands who have opted for blood-washing in search of relief from long COVID symptoms, and their stories are explored in an investigation that will air on the UK’s ITV Evening News at 6:30 pm (BST) on July 13 with Science Editor Deborah Cohen.
The report, while concerning, highlights the continuing need of patients affected by long COVID, which the World Health Organization has estimated affects between 10 and 20 percent of patients. Symptoms can include fatigue, muscle weakness, breathing, sleep and memory problems, anxiety or depression, chest pains, and loss of smell or taste, but as of yet, there is no definitive treatment for the condition.
Early investigations have pinpointed certain antihistamines as a promising avenue for further research, and the need for such investigations is arguably of paramount importance to prevent further long COVID patients from trying to access expensive, invasive, and seemingly ineffective therapies for their symptoms.
“It's unsurprising that people who were previously highly functioning, who are now debilitated, can't work, can't financially support themselves, would seek treatments elsewhere,” said Shamil Haroon, clinical lecturer in primary care at the University of Birmingham and a researcher on the Therapies for Long COVID in Non-hospitalised patients trial, in a statement.
“It's a completely rational response to a situation like this. But people could potentially go bankrupt accessing these treatments, for which there is limited to no evidence of effectiveness.”