Participants in UK coronavirus study could be monitored for up to 25 years

Nicola Davis
Photograph: Jon Santa Cruz/Rex/Shutterstock

Participants in a study to understand the long-term and often unexpected effects of Covid-19 could be monitored for up to 25 years, researchers have said.

As coronavirus swept the world, reports began to grow of people experiencing long-lasting symptoms including fatigue, breathlessness, coughs and chest pains – even for mild cases of the disease.

Researchers have also raised concerns of long-term problems: among recent studies scientists found that even those who have had a mild case of Covid-19 could be left with serious and potentially fatal brain disorders.

Now experts have revealed that a £8.4m study announced last week into the long-term health impacts of Covid-19 could follow participants for decades.

Prof Louise Wain, a member of the team from the University of Leicester, said: “The focus of the research initially will be over the first 12 months after discharge, but participants in the study will be giving consent for us to actually follow them up for quite a lot longer – up to 25 years.”

That, she said, meant the team would be able to look at short-term effects as well as longer-term effects that were unexpected or might only show up later.

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Researchers behind the project, called the post-hospitalisation Covid-19 study – or Phosp-Covid – are hoping to recruit about 10,000 adults who have been discharged after being in hospital with Covid-19.

The study will track participants’ health through clinic and GP visits, while a subset of participants will also be asked to complete questionnaires, undergo brain scans and provide blood, urine and sputum samples. Some participants will also undergo additional assessments.

The team hopes the study will not only shed light on the effects of Covid-19 on the body, but identify biological molecules or genetic differences that could help to explain why some individuals experience more long-term effects, identify who is at risk of such problems, and reveal early indicators.

“There is a lot of difference between individuals in how their bodes are reacting to the virus, and that is what we hope to understand,” said Wain.

Related: Scientists investigate cases of post-Covid-19 fatigue

Prof Calum Semple of the University of Liverpool said participants might experience a number of symptoms. “Many people, we believe, will have scarring on the lungs, fatigue in their muscles and perhaps vascular damage to the brain, and perhaps psychological distress as well,” he said.

Prof John Geddes of the University of Oxford said the study would help to unpick the prevelance of mental health problems and neurological conditions in those who have been in hospital with Covid-19, as well as who was most at risk of developing them, and the mechanisms behind them.

Prof Chris Brightling of the University of Leicester, who is leading the study, said among other important questions was whether drugs or other treatments given when the patient was in hospital would affect the later course of the disease.

He said: “What we shall learn will help those people who have had covid and direct us to how we can improve their care but also might give us clues how to test and change approaches to care for any subsequent waves of disease.” Brightling said findings from the first 1,000 participants were expected in September.

While the study is focused on people who have been in hospital with the disease, Wain said the research could have wider implications.

“Anything that we find that helps us to understand any long-term effects in hospitalised individuals may also be relevant for individuals who had maybe moderate to severe disease at home,” she said.