Long Covid is “devastating” the lives and livelihoods of tens of millions of people, and wreaking havoc on health systems and economies, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned as he urged countries to launch “immediate” and “sustained” efforts to tackle the “very serious” crisis.
The world has never been in a better position to end the Covid-19 pandemic, but it is also “very clear” that many of those infected by the virus, which first emerged in China in late 2019, are still experiencing “prolonged suffering”, the WHO director general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said.
Covid has killed almost 6.5 million people and infected more than 600 million. The WHO estimates that 10% to 20% of survivors have been left with mid- and long-term symptoms such as fatigue, breathlessness and cognitive dysfunction. Women are more likely to suffer from the condition.
With the absence of evidence about how best to treat it, long Covid is turning people’s lives upside down, and many face “often lengthy” and “frustrating” waits for support or guidance, Tedros said. The large numbers of those cruelly affected by the long tail of Covid are also having a dangerous impact on health systems and economies still reeling from waves of infections.
“While the pandemic has changed dramatically due to the introduction of many lifesaving tools, and there is light at the end of the tunnel, the impact of long Covid for all countries is very serious and needs immediate and sustained action equivalent to its scale,” Tedros said, writing for the Guardian.
Countries must now “seriously ramp up” both research into the condition and access to care for those affected if they are to “minimise the suffering” of their populations and protect their health systems and workforces.
“Early in the pandemic, it was important for overwhelmed health systems to focus all of their life saving efforts on Covid-19 patients presenting with acute infection,” he said. “However, it is critical for governments to invest long-term in their health system and workers and make a plan now for dealing with long Covid.
“This plan should encompass: providing immediate access to antivirals to patients at high risk of serious disease, investing in research and sharing new tools and knowledge as they’re identified to prevent, detect and treat patients more effectively. It also means supporting patients’ physical and mental health as well as providing financial support for those who are unable to work.”
The intervention from the head of the UN agency comes as the Guardian launches a major new global series on the condition, Living with long Covid.
Since the WHO declared an international emergency in 2020, the rollout of vaccines and treatments for the virus has helped stem the toll of deaths and hospitalisations. Reported deaths from Covid-19 this month are the lowest since March 2020.
However, there is mounting evidence that long Covid is preventing huge numbers of people from “living their fullest lives”, Tedros said. And that in turn is posing a fresh problem for countries still recovering from the pandemic, and in some cases, still having to cope with high levels of infections.
Stark research published this month suggests that as many as 17 million people in Europe alone may have experienced long Covid symptoms during the first two years of the pandemic.
The modeling also suggests that women are twice as likely as men to experience long Covid, and the risk increases dramatically among severe infections needing hospitalisation, the report said. One in three women and one in five men are likely to develop long Covid, according to the report.
“It’s added a significant burden to health workers and the health system overall, which is still dealing with additional waves of Covid-19 infection and the knock-on backlog of essential medical services that have been severely disrupted,” said Tedros.
“The world has already lost a significant number of the workforce to illness, death, fatigue, unplanned retirement due to an increase in long-term disability, which not only impacts the health system, but is a hit to the overarching economy.”
Writing for the Guardian, Tedros said there were “five key elements” necessary to drive forward efforts in tackling long Covid. Countries need to listen to patients, use their “first-hand knowledge” to shape long Covid policies, and collect better data to understand the condition better. Sharing of information between countries must be improved to “quickly close knowledge gaps” worldwide.
He also called for “equitable access” to Covid tests, treatments and vaccines to avoid infections in the first place and thereby cut the risk of long Covid, “sustained investment” in long Covid scientific research, and prompt “multi-disciplinary care” for long Covid patients.
“Delayed clinical care in patients with long Covid not only impacts their quality of life but the length of time they have symptoms,” Tedros said.
Prof Peter Openshaw, a UK government adviser and vice-chair of the government’s new and emerging respiratory virus threats advisory group (Nervtag), told the Guardian in an interview that he was “very concerned” about long Covid, and called for a more joined-up approach to research.
Asked if long Covid could persist for many years, Openshaw, a professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London, said: “I think there will be people who are affected life-long, but how common that is going to be is hard to know at the moment. It’s too early to tell. But there are clearly some terrible stories of people whose lives have been devastated by post-Covid syndrome.”
Many of his colleagues in healthcare, who had previously been “energetic clinicians”, are “now unable to work because of long Covid”, Openshaw added. “Fortunately, most of us do get better. But I think it is quite clear that there are some people who just are devastated by it.”