18 Feb 2021   |   Network Updates   |   Update from University College London
These updates are republished press releases and communications from members of the Science|Business Network

University College London researchers lead £11M projects to investigate long-term effects of COVID-19


Professor Nishi Chaturvedi (MRC Unit for Lifelong Health & Ageing at UCL) and Professor Sir Terence Stephenson (UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health) are leading two new studies on Long Covid announced by the UK Government today.

Professor Chaturvedi’s project, awarded £9.6 million from the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), will use data from 60,000 people over three years to help define what Long Covid is and improve diagnosis. Professor Stephenson’s study, awarded £1.36 million, will study Long Covid in 11- to 17-year-olds.

They are among four major studies funded by NIHR and UKRI to help improve understanding of the causes, symptoms and treatment of the longer-term effects of Covid-19 in people who have not become unwell enough to be admitted to hospital.

Professor Chaturvedi’s study will seek to explain why some people get the condition, the typical effects on a person’s health and ability to work, and the factors that affect recovery. She said: “The sad thing is, we know very little about Long Covid at the moment and that really underlines the need for new research.

“By taking a whole population perspective, including hard-to-reach groups, we hope to understand the enduring consequences of Covid-19 and inform best practice for all of us.”

Researchers will analyse data from a combination of national anonymised electronic health records and ongoing longitudinal studies of people of all ages in the UK (including four cohort studies hosted by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies, and the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children).

From these studies, people reporting Long Covid and comparator groups will be asked to wear a wristband measuring exercise ability, breathing, and heart rate. Participants will complete online questionnaires on mental health and cognitive function. They will also be invited to a clinic for non-invasive imaging to look at potential organ damage.

Professor Stephenson’s CLoCk Study, meanwhile, will identify symptoms of Long Covid among children and young people who were not hospitalised. The research will assess risk factors, prevalence and how long Long Covid lasts. It will also establish a medical diagnosis and operational definition of the condition, and look at how it might be treated.

Professor Stephenson said: “We are delighted to have been awarded £1.36m by NIHR to study Long Covid in 11- to 17-year-olds.

“It is really important in science to ‘believe what you hear, not hear what you believe’ and so we plan to ask 3,000 children and young people to tell us about the impact of Covid-19 infection on their health over the next two years. We will also ask 3,000 young people who tested negative for Covid-19 the same questions.

“That will help us tease out whether ongoing problems are due to Covid-19 infection or due to Covid-19 lockdown, social isolation, and disruption of schools and friendships.

“There’s hardly any evidence or data from around the whole world about Long Covid in children and young people, and that’s why it’s vital that we do this research now.”

About one in 10 people with Covid-19 continue to experience symptoms and impaired quality of life beyond 12 weeks. Long Covid may comprise several distinct syndromes that aren’t yet fully characterised and understood. A systematic review has highlighted 55 different long-term effects but common symptoms of Long Covid include breathlessness, headaches, cough, fatigue and cognitive impairment or “brain fog”.

Announcing the four new Government-funded studies on Long Covid, Matt Hancock, the Health and Social Care Secretary, said: “I am acutely aware of the lasting and debilitating impact Long Covid can have on people of all ages, irrespective of the extent of the initial symptoms.

“Fatigue, headaches and breathlessness can affect people for months after their COVID-19 infection regardless of whether they required hospital admission initially.

“In order to effectively help these individuals we need to better understand long COVID and identify therapeutics that can help recovery. This funding will kickstart four ambitious projects to do just that.”

Professor Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Officer for England and Head of the NIHR, said: “Good research is absolutely pivotal in understanding, diagnosing and then treating any illness, to ease symptoms and ultimately improve lives.

“This research, jointly funded through the NIHR and UKRI, will increase our knowledge of how and why the virus causes some people to suffer long term effects following a COVID-19 infection - and will be an important tool in developing more effective treatments for patients.”

The studies were recommended by an independent panel of research experts and patients with Long Covid.

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