When Covid Won’t Go Away

Aug 29, 2020
By Emma Court and  Robert Langreth

When Covid Won’t Go Away


In the nine months since the coronavirus emerged, the global medical community has learned about how to detect the virus, restrict its spread and better treat patients. Lately, scientists are also confronting a glaring blind spot in their knowledge: thousands of Covid-19 patients who report that months later they haven't recovered in full. 

Mysterious lingering symptoms after viral infections aren't new. Patients recovering from other viruses, including Ebola and the coronaviruses SARS and MERS, have also reported a wide range of continuing health problems, including neurologic issues. And then there's chronic fatigue syndrome, also called myalgic encephalomyelitis, a mysterious and debilitating condition linked to numerous viral infections.

“It's the minority of people — depending on the illness, from 5% to 20% — who have some kind of persistent problem. They never quite get over it,” says Mitchell Elkind, a professor of neurology and epidemiology at Columbia University.

Now Covid-19 patients are reporting similar problems. Some of the most common issues involve the nervous system, including everything from memory and sleep disturbances to dizziness, nerve pain and “brain fog.” Scientists are just starting to study those “long-haul”  patients, so it's not clear what is causing their symptoms or how long they will last. But even if a small minority of Covid patients face lingering cognitive problems, “that can be a massive societal and economic burden a year from now,” says Adrian Owen, a neuroscientist at Western University in Canada.

In the past, post-viral syndromes have often gotten limited research attention, or, in the case of chronic fatigue syndrome, proved hard to study given the long interval between viral infections and reported symptoms. The enormous number of coronavirus patients with lasting neurological symptoms may finally change that. It's prompting numerous studies just getting underway that may give doctors and patients badly needed answers to why some people can't seem to recover from Covid-19.