New research studies to help diagnose and treat Long COVID funded by NIHR

Three projects at Oxford have received funding from NIHR to assess breathlessness in Long COVID patients, investigate the impact of Long COVID on families, and examine the role of vaccines in Long COVID.

People experiencing Long COVID will benefit from a comprehensive package of new NIHR-funded research to help improve understanding of the condition, from diagnosis and treatment through to rehabilitation and recovery. 15 projects from across the UK have been awarded a total of £19.6 million to examine causes of Long COVID, trial drugs to tackle it, and investigate symptoms such as breathlessness and ‘brain fog’ that have become synonymous with the condition. Studies will also evaluate health services, such as Long COVID clinics, and explore ways patients can monitor the condition to optimise their recovery and return to work.

Health and Social Care Secretary, Sajid Javid, said, ‘Long COVID can have serious and debilitating long-term effects for thousands of people across the UK, which can make daily life extremely challenging. This new research is absolutely essential to improve diagnosis and treatments and will be life-changing for those who are battling long-term symptoms of the virus.

‘It will build on our existing support with over 80 Long COVID assessment services open across England as part of a £100 million expansion of care for those suffering from the condition, and over £50 million invested in research to better understand the lasting effects of this condition.’

A total of three projects at Oxford have been given funding, including:

The EXPLAIN project

The EXPLAIN project, led by Professor Fergus Gleeson at Oxford University and funded with £1.8 million, will seek to diagnose ongoing breathlessness in coronavirus patients who were not admitted to hospital, using MRI scans to trace inhaled gas moving into and out of the lungs to assess disease severity and whether breathlessness improves over time. The project will be done in cooperation with Professor Jim Wild at the University of Sheffield.

Prof Gleeson said, ‘Following on from our earlier work using hyperpolarised xenon MRI in patients following hospitalisation with COVID-19 pneumonia, where we showed that their lungs may be damaged even when all other tests were normal, it is critical to determine how many patients with Long COVID and breathlessness have damaged lungs, and if and how long it takes for their lungs to recover.

‘Hyperpolarised xenon MRI takes a few minutes and does not require radiation exposure, so it may be repeated over time to see lung changes. Using this technique, we can see if there has been damage to the airways in the lungs, or to the areas where oxygen crosses into the bloodstream, which appears to be the area damaged by COVID-19.’

Understanding and using family experiences of managing long COVID to support self care and timely access to services

Led by Sue Ziebland, Professor of Medical Sociology, Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, the project seeks to investigate how families are managing to cope with Long COVID and to understand how best they can be supported. It has been awarded £557,674 from NIHR, and is also supported by the Oxford Biomedical Research Centre (BRC).

Prof Ziebland says, ‘Like other long-term conditions, Long COVID is largely being managed in the family and household context and is experienced over the long haul of everyday life. Parents with Long COVID often struggle to fulfil their role as parents of young children, while older children and teenagers may be unwell themselves or need to take on a caring role for their parent. Many young adults have returned home, either because they needed to give or receive care, or because they had lost employment.

‘This all creates new family caring dynamics for people who are also dealing with the unpredictability of Long COVID. These experiences and the wider impacts on families have received little attention to date. Our study will help to address this gap through applied qualitative research, including interviews, and analysis of recordings of consultations with GPs.

‘We will co-design resources to support self-care for these families, including a new section on healthtalk.org, developing training for professionals and service improvement initiatives, and work with Performing Medicine to create interactive theatre workshops for schools.’

Impact of COVID-19 vaccination on preventing Long COVID: a population-based cohort study using linked NHS data

Led by Professor Daniel Prieto-Alhambra, in conjunction with Dr Annika Jödicke and Dr Victoria Strauss, all from the Nuffield Department of Orthopaedics, Rheumatology and Musculoskeletal Sciences, has been awarded £224,344 from NIHR. The project is also being supported by the Oxford Biomedical Research Centre (BRC). The project will examine the effects of different COVID-19 vaccines on Long COVID.

Dr Jödicke said, ‘Especially for healthy, young people with a low risk for severe COVID-19 disease, potential Long COVID complications remain a major concern. We need to understand the impact vaccination has on preventing Long COVID. This is an important aspect also to be considered in future risk-benefit evaluations for COVID vaccines.’

Dr Strauss added, “While COVID vaccine can provide excellent protection against severe diseases, we do not know to what extent vaccine is effective against Long COVID nor which vaccine brand provides better protection against Long COVID. This new funded project can provide new evidence on these important gaps. We hope it would provide public more complete pictures on risks and benefit on COVID vaccine.’

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