Tens of millions of people have long covid. We are finally beginning to understand the mechanisms behind the disease – and medicines are probably less than a year away
LAUREN NICHOLS first fell ill on 10 March 2020. Her symptoms started with crushing fatigue, swiftly followed by headaches, brain fog and agonising gastrointestinal pain. “My oesophagus was incredibly painful,” she says. “Every time I took a breath of air, every time I spoke, I wanted to die.” Her doctor diagnosed bad acid reflux.
Nichols had an inkling it was covid-19, and later tested positive, but her symptoms didn’t run their course in a couple of weeks, as official advice at the time stated. Two years down the line, she is still waiting for relief.
She isn’t alone. Alongside the 5.8 million people confirmed to have died from the coronavirus, tens of millions more have long covid: a lingering condition with symptoms that last for months or years. These “long haulers” are still experiencing the ill effects of infection, often with little help from doctors. “They still aren’t listening to patients,” says Nichols, who is now vice president of Body Politic, an international advocacy group currently focusing on covid-19.
Despite a lack of funding and attention from governments, two years into the pandemic, long covid is beginning to reveal its secrets. “Scientists are working around the clock to try to understand what’s going on,” says Akiko Iwasaki at Yale University. Not only are we starting to appreciate why some people remain ill after infection while others are left with barely a sniffle, we are making sense of what is happening in the body – and with that, the ways to treat and even prevent it.
The first whispers of a lingering condition associated with covid-19 started within months of …