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Researching long COVID

An estimated 1.8 million people in the UK - 3% of the population - are experiencing ongoing symptoms after COVID-19, known as ‘long COVID’.

Research into long COVID

To date, more than £50 million of government funding has been invested in long COVID research projects. The bulk of this (£39.2 million) has been awarded to 19 projects commissioned through two dedicated calls for long COVID research.

These 19 studies examine the underlying mechanisms of long COVID, investigate symptoms such as ‘brain fog’ and breathlessness, and test possible treatments. They explore whether NHS services, such as long COVID clinics, meet people’s needs, and look at what people can do to optimise their own recovery.

Three projects are considering who gets long COVID and why, and two looking into the biological causes of the condition. Three studies are looking at diagnosis, with an immunology study also touching on this. Four studies are evaluating treatments, and three others are considering recovery and rehabilitation. One study is looking at the impact of COVID-19 vaccination on preventing long COVID, and the final two studies are researching how health services can treat the condition and the health and economic costs of the disease.

NIHR’s latest themed review Researching long COVID: addressing a new global health challenge summarises the current state of play for these 19 long COVID studies and the research findings to date. The review considers the research so far on:

  • What is the biological cause of long COVID?
  • How common is long COVID?
  • What are the symptoms?
  • Do children experience long COVID?
  • How can health professionals accurately diagnose long COVID?
  • Can medicines and vaccines help people with long COVID?
  • How can health services best support people with long COVID?
  • How can healthcare professionals prioritise the needs of people with long COVID?

The researchers are working as fast as they can to deliver results. Several studies reported their first results in less than six months, with the findings so far helping improve understanding of the prevalence of long COVID and who's most likely to be affected.

For example, three NIHR studies published in summer 2021 showed that up to one in three people who have had COVID-19 report long COVID symptoms and up to one in seven children. Another NIHR study found that people who had five or more COVID-19 symptoms are more likely to develop long COVID. A third study, funded by NIHR and UKRI, identified that sex, age and existing health problems increase the risk of long COVID.

And this year so far NIHR researchers have found lung abnormalities in long COVID patients with breathlessness and worked with patients and carers to develop new definitions for long COVID and ways of measuring symptoms.

Other projects are progressing at pace, with results being published and highlighted by the NIHR as soon as they’re available.

We’ll continue to provide updates on how the research is developing over the lifespan of the projects, so patients and carers can stay abreast of how the research is unfolding.

Latest research findings

Getting help with long COVID symptoms

If you are worried about new or ongoing symptoms after having COVID-19, there are resources available to help. You can visit the NHS webpage on the long-term effects of coronavirus and the NHS ‘Your COVID Recovery’ website, which can help you to understand what has happened and what you might expect as part of your recovery.

The NHS is taking practical action to help people suffering ongoing health issues as a result of COVID-19, including setting up 90 specialist Post-COVID clinics across England. Anyone who is concerned about symptoms lasting 4 weeks or more following COVID-19 should get in touch with their GP practice, or go online to the NHS 'Your COVID Recovery' website for further advice.

NIHR’s long COVID research response

NIHR’s long COVID research response aims to provide the evidence that healthcare professionals and services need to ensure the best care for people who present with ongoing symptoms following initial COVID-19 infection.

NIHR first recognised the growing burden of illness following COVID in 2020, producing in October an assessment of the evidence to date in its dynamic themed review of the scientific evidence on, and lived experience of, long-term ongoing COVID-19.

Shortly after, we launched our first dedicated call for research into physical and mental effects of long COVID, and subsequently in February 2021 awarded a total of £18.5 million to four new research projects with our funding partners UK Research and Innovation.

We published a second themed review into long COVID in March 2021, which considered over 300 papers and academic opinion pieces from across the world to provide a unique, evidence-based perspective on the disease.

We launched a second NIHR funding round the same month, and in July awarded a total of £19.6 million to 15 projects.

Through these two dedicated funding calls, NIHR has awarded nearly £40 million of funding to 19 UK-based research projects on long COVID in people who haven’t been admitted to hospital. We sought views from people with long COVID, carers and members of the public throughout the research funding process, with them reviewing the proposals put forward by researchers and sitting on the committees that determined which research should be recommended for funding.

This research portfolio is complemented by studies from other NIHR funding programmes, such two virtual rehabilitation projects and a study looking at treating ongoing loss of smell in people who have experienced COVID, as well as a study considering the long-term effects of COVID in people who had been admitted to hospital.

The NIHR continues to accept funding applications for long COVID research through our usual researcher-led funding calls, should gaps be identified that researchers wish to explore.