While investigating whether it was safe for people with long COVID to receive a COVID vaccine, a team of researchers came across a curious observation: not only was the jab well-tolerated, but some of the “long-haulers” felt better after getting vaccinated.
The findings of the small study are still very much preliminary, but it does raise some interesting questions about the mysterious nature of long COVID and possible ways to treat it.
Long COVID is a nebulous term used to describe the lingering symptoms of COVID-19 that can continue to lurk for weeks or even months after the initial infection. Symptoms include fatigue, a persistent cough, shortness of breath, loss of smell, muscle weakness, insomnia, and “brain fog”. Some estimates suggest that as many as 1 in 10 people who have caught COVID-19 will develop some of these symptoms for 3 months or more — considering there have been over 121 million cases worldwide, that’s a hell of a lot of people.
In a new preprint paper, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, researchers at the North Bristol NHS Trust in the UK looked at whether it’s safe for people experiencing these debilitating symptoms to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. After all, it’s important to get shot even if you’ve already caught COVID-19.
The research involved a clinical follow-up of 66 people 3 months and 8 months after they were hospitalized with COVID-19, around 80 percent of whom had typical signs of long COVID. To look at the effect of the vaccine, they compared 22 unvaccinated participants with 44 people who had received either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines.
One month after their jab, the vaccinated patients reported improvement in 23 percent of their long Covid symptoms while 5.6 percent of their symptoms had worsened. Most interestingly, the symptoms of long COVID appear to have eased more in the vaccinated patients compared to the unvaccinated patients. No difference in response was found between Pfizer-BioNTech or Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines.
“When compared to matched unvaccinated participants from the same cohort, those who had received a vaccine actually reported an overall improvement in Long Covid symptoms. Although the sample size is small to make firm conclusions for this observation it is of interest and raises further questions about the etiology of these symptoms,” the paper reads.
Scientists are still getting to grips with understanding long COVID. Many suspect that it’s not necessarily a uniform condition, but a multi-faceted condition that can have a variety of causes. Some researchers in the UK have even speculated that it’s possibly up to four different syndromes: permanent organ damage, post-intensive-care syndrome, post-viral fatigue syndrome, and continuing Covid-19 symptoms.
Given that the medical understanding of long COVID is still so young, any theories on why the vaccine appears to dampen symptoms of the condition would be speculation. At this time, it can't be ruled out that the lurking COVID-19 symptoms simply resolved themselves, regardless of the vaccine. It's possible the placebo/nocebo effect (when a placebo makes you feel better/worse) occurs after vaccination, too. Nevertheless, the findings of this preliminary research appear to hold some promise for the millions of people who will experience this condition in some form or another.
“These results should be reassuring for the large numbers of individuals worldwide who have developed persistent symptoms post coronavirus infection and are considering whether to take up the vaccine,” the paper concludes.
For more information about COVID-19, check out the IFLScience COVID-19 hub where you can follow the current state of the pandemic, the progress of vaccine development, and further insights into the disease.