A team of researchers has received funding to carry out a study investigating whether an anti-viral medication commonly used to treat people with acute COVID-19, could support the management of people living with long COVID.
The ground-breaking project involves teams of experts led by the University of Derby, working with the University of Exeter and University Hospitals of Derby and Burton NHS Foundation Trust, in collaboration with Gilead Sciences, Inc.
Long COVID remains a significant health and societal challenge. Current estimates show that approximately 1.9 million people in the UK (2.9% of the population) have the condition – almost a quarter of whom have had their symptoms for more than two years.[i] Globally, estimates suggest that over 144 million developed long COVID with 22 million experiencing persistent symptoms at 12 months after the onset of their infection.[ii] People affected may experience symptoms such as extreme fatigue and breathlessness, palpitations, or brain fog. In many cases these can be debilitating, interfering with work, family life and socialising.[iii] The search for a potential treatment is therefore of paramount importance as it may help in reducing the number of people impacted by this condition, improving outcomes and quality of life.
The cause of long COVID is not yet clear; however, a widely recognised theory is that the virus persists within specific cells of the infected person, causing an associated inflammatory response, and a wide range of prolonged symptoms. [iv] This study, supported by funding from Gilead Sciences, Inc., will allow the team to assess whether a certain antiviral medicine has the potential to be an effective treatment option for patients once diagnosed with long COVID. Eligible patients will undergo a series of tests before and after being given the medication to monitor any improvements in long-standing issues they are experiencing.iv
Study lead, Dr Mark Faghy, Associate Professor in Respiratory Physiology at the University of Derby, explains: “We have seen that long COVID has a huge impact on the lives of patients. However, at present, there are no confirmed treatments that have improved patient outcomes. This project will shed light on whether using existing antiviral treatment could help address this global challenge. Millions have been affected by this terrible condition which makes research like this critically important as we seek to find new ways to improve care.”
Dr Faghy’s team have previously conducted a series of international studies to explore the impacts of acute and long COVID, recording patients’ symptoms and their lived experience. Throughout this work, the team have engaged with healthcare providers and, most importantly, long COVID patients themselves, working to understand how they are being impacted, what support they need, and to identify opportunities where intervention may be beneficial. This extensive work has been key to informing the design and development of services for long COVID patients.
From January 2024, eligible people will be contacted and invited to take part in the study. This first phase of research will look at a series of measures, including exercise tolerability. Participants at the University of Exeter may receive detailed body scans to determine if the anti-viral therapy, as an effect of the reduction in viral activity, can reduce evidence of ongoing inflammation that has been demonstrated in people with long COVID.
Professor David Strain, the clinical lead based at the University of Exeter Medical School, elaborates: “This study is an important first step to identify potential treatment options for this devastating condition. Inflammation in the body and brain are closely associated with symptoms of long COVID. If treatment demonstrates improvements in these measures, this could lead to improved symptoms for people with long COVID. If this study is successful, we hope to progress to a larger study targeting improving symptoms in 2024.”
Dr Julian Cole, Country Medical Director, Gilead Sciences UK & Ireland, commented: “Anybody who has suffered from long COVID, or knows somebody who has, will be aware of how debilitating this condition can be and the toll it can take on people’s lives. As a leader in the study of viral infection, Gilead is committed to supporting innovative research in this area and we are delighted to be collaborating on this important study. There is a clear need for people living with long COVID and the hope is that the findings from this study will help further inform how to effectively manage the condition.”