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Major study into long-term health effects of COVID-19 launched in the UK

Published: 05 July 2020

The Health and Social Care Secretary has announced the launch of a major £8.4 million research study into the long-term health effects of COVID-19 on hospitalised patients, which has been funded by the NIHR and UK Research and Innovation.

The researchers hope their findings will support the search for treatments for COVID-19 and the development of care pathways that will help patients recover as fully as possible after having experienced the disease. 

Symptoms of COVID-19 have varied among those who have tested positive: some have displayed no symptoms, while others have developed severe pneumonia and, tragically, have even lost their lives. 

For those who were hospitalised and have since been discharged, it is not yet clear what their medical, psychological and rehabilitation needs will be to enable them to make as full a recovery as possible.

The Post-Hospitalisation COVID-19 Study (PHOSP-COVID), led by the NIHR Leicester Biomedical Research Centre, will draw on expertise from a consortium of leading researchers and doctors from across the UK to assess the impact of COVID-19 on patient health and recovery.

This includes looking at possible ways to help improve the mental health of patients hospitalised with coronavirus, and how individual characteristics influence recovery, such as gender or ethnicity.

Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock said: “As we continue our fight against this global pandemic, we are learning more and more about the impact the disease can have not only on immediate health, but longer term physical and mental health too.

“This world-leading study is another fantastic contribution from the UK's world-leading life sciences and research sector. It will also help to ensure future treatment can be tailored as much as possible to the person.”

The study aims to recruit around 10,000 people from across all four nations of the UK who have been discharged from hospital after having COVID-19. 

The researchers will follow up participants for up to 12 months or longer to collect and analyse routine clinical data, such as blood test results and lung volume measurements. Enhanced clinical data, such as samples to look for the presence or absence of specific molecules (biomarkers), will also be collected for some patients, and this data may be linked to their other medical records.

The study data will be used to determine the short to long terms health issues experienced by people who have been hospitalised with COVID-19 and relate these, where possible, to demographic data, clinical information and biomarkers.

The data will also help researchers understand which medicines and care pathways patients received in hospital and follow-up visits were most helpful, and to pinpoint their effectiveness in groups of particular patients.

The PHOSP-COVID team will then develop sub-trials of new strategies for clinical care, including personalised treatments for groups of patients based on the particular disease characteristics they show as a result of having COVID-19 – such as kidney damage, or lasting heart and circulatory problems.

Professor Chris Brightling, Professor of Respiratory Medicine at the University of Leicester and Consultant Respiratory Physician at Leicester’s Hospitals, is the chief investigator for the study. He said: “As we emerge from the first wave of the pandemic, we have new insights into the acute phase of this disease but very little information about patients’ long- term needs.

“It is vitally important that we rapidly gather evidence on the longer term consequences of contracting severe COVID-19 so we can develop and test new treatment strategies for them and other people affected by future waves of the disease.”

Chief Medical Officer and NIHR co-lead Professor Chris Whitty said: “As well as the immediate health impacts of the virus, it is also important to look at the longer-term impacts on health, which may be significant. 

“We have rightly focused on mortality, and what the UK can do straight away to protect lives, but we should also look at how COVID-19 impacts on the health of people after they have recovered from the immediate disease. 

“This UKRI and NIHR funded study is one of the first steps in doing this.”

UK Research and Innovation Chief Executive, Professor Ottoline Leyser, said: “We have much to learn about the long-term health impacts of COVID-19 and its management in hospital, including the effects of debilitating lung and heart conditions, fatigue, trauma and the mental health and wellbeing of patients. 

“UKRI is collaborating with NIHR to fund one of the world’s largest studies to track the long-term effects of the virus after hospital treatment, recognising that for many people survival may be just the start of a long road to recovery. 

“This study will support the development of better care and rehabilitation and, we hope, improve the lives of survivors.”

This study is one of a number of COVID-19 studies that have been given urgent public health research status by the Department of Health and Social Care, to expedite its delivery in the health and care system.

PHOSP-COVID will establish a national platform that embeds research into a standardised clinical and biosampling pathway, integrating with ISARIC-4C and utilising the NIHR Bioresource.

The study is supported by NIHR’s Biomedical Research Centres, in collaboration with the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland COVID-19 networks and the NIHR Clinical Research Network Respiratory Specialty. The study also receives support from the NIHR Respiratory, Mental Health and Dementia Translational Research Collaborations (TRCs), the NIHR-British Heart Foundation Cardiovascular Partnership, and the Diet and Activity Research Translation Collaboration.

Professor Melanie Davies, Director of the NIHR Leicester Biomedical Research Centre, said: “The purpose of a Biomedical Research Centre is to translate scientific breakthroughs into benefits for patients at pace.

“The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the value of centres like ours in Leicester where we are leading research embedded into clinical care settings, which will have a direct impact on patient care, and we are delighted to be awarded this prestigious funding to continue our exemplary record in the fight against coronavirus.”

The data collected during the study will also be used globally, collaborating with consortia in Europe (European Respiratory Society) and Canada (Canadian Thoracic Society), to understand the long term impacts of COVID-19 on health worldwide.

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