Scientists in the US and UK have begun a new drive to understand why so many people continue to suffer Covid-19 symptoms for months or years after their infection.The Long Covid Research Initiative is seeking to raise $100mn to answer the most pressing questions about a condition that affects tens of millions of people worldwide.Top priority is to discover whether long Covid sufferers retain a reservoir of the Sars-Cov-2 virus that causes the disease within their bodies — which could explain symptoms such as exhaustion and brain fog. These linger well after patients have stopped being infectious. “There’s growing evidence of Sars-Cov-2 persisting in tissues such as the intestines, the nervous system and the respiratory tract,” said John Wherry, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute of Immunology, one of 22 scientists involved in an initiative started by patients. “But we don’t know much about these viral reservoirs because they’re quite inaccessible in living patients.”Another of those involved, Helen Davies, respiratory medicine consultant at University Hospital Llandough in Wales, said: “Several studies have demonstrated persistence of viral RNA [genetic material] but we need to know whether viable virus is present.”Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin Buterin is donating through the Balvi philanthropic fund, which he established to support Covid research © Michael Ciaglo/Getty ImagesPhilanthropic support for the long Covid initiative has been led by a $15mn donation from Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin. Buterin is donating through the Balvi philanthropic fund, which he established to support Covid research.“While society has mostly returned to normal life, Covid is still a dangerous virus, with evidence of all kinds of long-term effects that we are not close to fully understanding,” he said. “It’s vitally important to double down on effects to research and better understand these issues, and come closer to being able to effectively prevent and treat them.” A second donation is coming from Patrick Soon-Shiong, the California-based biotech and media billionaire, who is preparing to contribute through the Chan Soon-Shiong Family Foundation.The exact number of people with Covid who go on to develop long-term illness remains unknown, but Werry said the best estimate was about 10 per cent.As the cumulative total of recorded Covid cases worldwide stands at more than 600mn, this would imply 60mn long Covid sufferers. A survey released last week by the UK Office for National Statistics found 2 per cent of the population had long Covid symptoms.
Public agencies are funding research into the condition — notably the US National Institutes of Health which has a $1.15bn long Covid programme over four years. Most of the scientists involved in the new long Covid initiative receive money from NIH and other government bodies, such as the UK National Institute for Health Research, but their decision-making and grant-giving machinery moves relatively slowly.“We need the Long Covid Research Initiative as a platform for rapidly implementing high-risk, high-reward studies,” said Timothy Henrich, whose laboratory at the University of California San Francisco is applying a technique originally developed for imaging another persistent virus — HIV — to Sars-Cov-2.Scientists involved in the network said close collaboration, with weekly calls to discuss progress, was a big benefit of taking part in the initiative — aside from the promise of research funding.“It’s not all about money,” Henrich explained. “The initiative has brought together scientists on the cutting edge of long Covid research who wouldn’t normally collaborate. We’re been able to share ideas and samples.”