An employee pulls out a syringe and a container of the BioNTech / Pfizer vaccine in Schwaz, Austria.
JOHANN GRODER AFP | Getty images
Sherry Paulson had trouble getting out of bed months after being diagnosed with Covid-19.
The 53-year-old North Dakota resident and her family fell ill after attending a wedding in August. Paulson, an endurance athlete who runs a farm outside Fargo, would later suffer from fatigue, brain fog and an increased heart rate, prompting doctors to advise her to stop training and attend cardiac rehabilitation.
“Suddenly I was no longer asleep after cardiac rehabilitation,” said Paulson, who also suffers from multiple sclerosis. “And then I started going for walks with my dog. Then I was like, ‘um, I think I’m going to run a little too. “
Some people who have suffered from prolonged and often debilitating symptoms months after their initial attack with the virus now say they find relief after vaccination, puzzling doctors and other health experts. Survivor Corps, a group advocating for patients with so-called Long Covid, recently surveyed nearly 900 of its members and found that 41% reported slight relief until full recovery soon after receiving the photos.
The World Health Organization estimates that about 1 in 10 patients with Covid-19 experience permanently deteriorating health 12 weeks after infection with the virus. Researchers at the University of Washington published data in February showing that one-third of patients reported persistent symptoms, including fatigue, shortness of breath and sleep disturbances that lasted for up to nine months.
Symptoms of long-acting Covid, what researchers now call post-acute effects of Covid-19 or PASC, can develop well after the initial infection, and the severity can range from mild to incapacitated, according to public health officials and health experts.
One of the largest global studies, published in early January, found that many people suffering from a continuing illness after infection could not return to work at full capacity six months later. The survey surveyed more than 3,700 people between the ages of 18 and 80 from 56 countries.
Diana Berrent, who founded Survivor Corps a little over a year ago, suffered from Covid for months before most of the symptoms resolved on their own last year. She said some members of the organization were initially hesitant to get vaccinated. Members fear, Berent said, that the reported side effects of the shots would worsen their symptoms.
“We really expected the worst of the vaccines,” she told CNBC in a telephone interview. “You could have knocked me down with a pen when I realized that some people were starting to get better because it was just so far beyond what we expected.”
They are not alone. Facebook and Twitter are full of stories from people who testify, to their own surprise, that their symptoms have eased or even disappeared after receiving the Covid-19 vaccine.
Not well understood
The cause of persistent symptoms is still not well understood by immunologists and other health experts.
Most studies have focused on people with severe or fatal illness, not on those who have recovered, but still report long-term side effects, so-called long haul carriers. The virus is also relatively new – discovered a little over a year ago – so there is no long-term data on it.
In February, the National Institutes of Health launched an initiative to conduct a long study of Covid and identify the causes and potential treatments for humans. At the time, NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins said the researchers hoped to understand the underlying biological cause of the prolonged symptoms.
Doctors also don’t know why some patients with long Covid say they feel better after immunizations. Understanding this, experts say it can give a new idea of what is behind the persistent symptoms, as well as potential new treatments to combat them.
Sherry Paulson with her dog Jazzie in North Dakota.
Courtesy: Sherry Paulson
The virus tank
According to Yale immunologist Akiko Iwasaki, one theory is that vaccines help eliminate the so-called “virus reservoir” where the virus can still linger in the body and cause chronic symptoms. The strong immune response elicited by vaccines can help clear up other viruses by eliminating symptoms, said the scientist, who has long studied Covid.
“This is probably the clearest way for vaccines to help people,” she told CNBC in a telephone interview. “If that’s the case, people will be cured of Covid for a long time and that will be great news.”
Iwasaki also suggested that Covid could cause an autoimmune disease in which immune cells mistakenly damage the body. If that is the case, vaccines can provide “temporary relief” from symptoms, and patients may have to return for another dose, she said.
There are no long-term data on how people feel after the vaccine, she said. “But I suspect that if the second [hypothesis] is true, then it will not be a lasting relief. “
The symptoms returned
Darren Brown, a 37-year-old physiotherapist based in the United Kingdom, said his symptoms returned a few weeks after he received his first dose of the Pfizer vaccine.
Brown suffers from fatigue, restless sleep and impaired coordination for several months. He said he felt his long symptoms of Covid had completely disappeared about three weeks after his first shot. But just days before his second dose, he felt his symptoms begin to return.
“I began to notice that I was getting more tired again,” he said. went to bed after one working day. “
He is feeling better after his second dose, but said he was worried his symptoms might return.
“I’m really cautious that this may not be long-lasting,” he said. “But I’m also really excited that it’s been raised so far.”
Paulson, a North Dakota farmer, said she still had some symptoms, but fatigue and brain fog had disappeared from her second shot on March 18. She added that she was grateful that she was doing well, especially after many others died of the disease.
“There are always things that put life in perspective for you and get you back on your feet for a while,” said Paulson, who also works for the Massachusetts-based biotechnology company.
While reports of relieving Covid’s long-term symptoms may be good news, they are still just anecdotal, said Dr. Paul Ofit, a voting member of the FDA’s Advisory Committee on Vaccines and Related Organic Products.
There still needs to be a formal study to determine if the vaccines really help, he said.
Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Toronto, echoed Ofit’s remarks, saying he was skeptical but “open.”
“This is a question with an answer and I hope we have decent data that can confirm or disprove this,” Bogoc said. “Otherwise, these are just a bunch of collective anecdotes.”
Iwasaki told CNBC he planned to conduct a study, in collaboration with Survivor Corps, analyzing the blood samples of long-term patients with Covid before and after vaccination. She said he hoped they could explain the relief some patients were experiencing after vaccination.
The study is still in the planning stages, she said, adding, “we are working very hard to get this started.”
“I’ve received numerous emails and DMs on Twitter about patients’ experiences … and I hear from people who feel better about getting the vaccine every day,” she said. “From my place it looks hopeful.”
– Noah Higgins-Dunn of CNBC contributed to this report.