Editor’s Note: Tim Spector is a professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London, scientific co-founder of ZOE, a health science company, senior researcher of the PREDICT study, and lead scientist of the ZOE COVID Study. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
At the start of the pandemic, as Covid-19 spread across the world, more and more reports appeared of people suffering from symptoms for weeks and often months after their initial diagnosis. Due to lack of testing and, more importantly, lack of understanding of this new virus, these long-term sufferers were left with no answers and no hope. Many people were turned away by medical professionals and their persistent and odd symptoms were blamed on anxiety. But what was really going on?
Long Covid is a condition that persists after a Covid-19 infection and can sometimes leave sufferers unable to partake in daily life for months – perhaps longer. It deserves our attention both medically and socially, as sufferers in the present and future will need a huge amount of support from services that are already stretched thin due to the pandemic. More research needs to be done to help understand this condition, but in the meantime while we wait for the research to catch up, the easiest way to reduce the likelihood of getting long Covid is to get fully vaccinated as soon as possible.
In early 2020, ZOE, the health science company that I cofounded, was preparing to launch a new nutritional health program. But then, when the pandemic hit, the ZOE team felt compelled to help address the immediate health challenges before us. We responded by using our existing technology to build and launch an app to collect Covid symptoms in real-time. The ZOE COVID Study now has more than 4.5 million contributors across the UK, the US, and Sweden – and it has allowed us to learn more about long Covid and understand what needs to be done to reduce the risk of contracting it.
What we know about long Covid and vaccines
The ZOE app started tracking vaccines in the UK as soon as they were rolled out in December 2020 and since then, we’ve been investigating the link between vaccination and long Covid and have gathered some interesting findings.
According to our research, published in “Nature,” around one in 20 unvaccinated people who are symptomatic with Covid-19 experience symptoms for at least eight weeks, and around one in 50 experience symptoms for three months or more.
However, for vaccinated individuals, our analysis, published in “Lancet Infectious Diseases,” found that double vaccinated (AstraZeneca or Pfizer) adults were 49% less likely to get long Covid should they get infected. In short, their chances of developing long Covid were cut by half.
The analysis also found that those who contracted Covid-19 after two doses were 74% less likely to be hospitalized and 35% less likely to experience acute Covid symptoms. When it comes to long Covid prevention, vaccination seems to be key.
Right now, according to the ZOE data, the UK is seeing the highest Covid rates we’ve had in 2021. While the risk of getting long Covid when vaccinated is very small, ultimately, it’s a numbers game. More cases means more people who may go on to experience long Covid. But anyone who wants to limit their chances of long Covid should get vaccinated and take precautionary measures, like wearing a mask, to avoid contracting the virus.
What about those who are already suffering from long Covid?
It wasn’t until this October that the World Health Organization finally recognized long Covid as “post Covid-19 condition.” By providing a definition, it not only signals to medical professionals to take long Covid seriously but also offers some form of vindication for those who continue to deal with long Covid symptoms.
And fortunately there are more data that show promise for long Covid sufferers, A patient-led group called LongCovidSOS found that of the over 800 long Covid patients surveyed, more than half reported an overall improvement in their symptoms post-vaccination. This study has only been released as a preprint so it has yet to be reviewed by other scientists, but the findings are encouraging.
While it appears that Covid-19 vaccines can have a positive impact on long Covid sufferers, it’s not clear why. Perhaps the immune response triggered by the vaccines has a direct impact on symptoms. It could be that certain types of long Covid respond well to vaccines or that certain types of vaccines are effective against long Covid. Or maybe the vaccines alleviate symptoms for people who have less complicated conditions. In order to know which, if any, of these ideas is correct, more research needs to be done. The plus is that getting vaccinated certainly doesn’t seem to make long Covid worse.
In fact, we’ve even heard anecdotal reports of symptoms improving and life getting easier for long Covid sufferers after being vaccinated. There are research studies happening all over the world and I would encourage anyone who is coping with long Covid to look up a nearby long Covid study and get involved.
It’s becoming clearer that we’ll all be living in a Covid-19 reality for some time to come. We must continue to take steps that will keep cases low so that globally, we can limit the number of people who will have to live with Covid’s long-term, life-limiting symptoms. Get vaccinated. Follow up with a booster shot. Continue to practice social distancing in busy spaces. Wash your hands. And, while I know wearing a mask can be uncomfortable or annoying, it’s one of the most effective steps we can take as a society to prevent the spread of this virus. So, please keep wearing your mask.