UK study raises hopes of long COVID test within months

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A diagnostic test to detect long COVID could be available within six to 12 months, following the discovery that patients with the chronic condition have distinctive antibodies in their blood. 

Researchers at Imperial College London (ICL) led by Professor Danny Altmann told the BBC's Panorama programme that they have identified a pattern of antibodies in people with long COVID different from those who have fully recovered from COVID-19.

Long COVID is the term used to described people who still suffer from fatigue and other symptoms like breathlessness and muscle aches weeks or months after the viral infection has resolved.

The team analysed blood samples from dozens of people and identified a group of antibodies in long COVID sufferers that appear to attack healthy tissues in the body, similar to those seen with autoimmune diseases, that weren't found in a healthy control group.

While the team stress that the research is in its early stages, the hope is that development of a diagnostic would help distinguish people with long COVID from other chronic conditions and – down the line – help to find potential treatments for the condition.

Other possible explanations for persistent symptoms with COVID-19 include reservoirs of virus hiding away in the body, or other immune system problems, according to the researchers.

Prof Altmann and other researchers are concerned that with the imminent relaxation of COVID-19 restrictions on 19 July, which seems almost certain to be followed by a surge in infection rates, the result could be hundreds of thousands of long COVID cases in the coming months.

He told the BBC that "if we're heading into a phase of 100,000 cases per day, and, we're saying that 10%-20% of all infections can result in long COVID, I can see no certainty that we're not brewing those long COVID cases despite having a vaccinated population."

As of 6 June, an estimated 962,000 people in the UK were experiencing self-reported long COVID symptoms, according to data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Even people who have mild symptoms when they are first infected with coronavirus can have long-term problems.

A cross-party group of MPs and peers has called on the UK government to think again about its plans to relax lockdown rules because they fear that the NHS could be placed under an "unsustainable" strain by rising long COVID cases.

A recent report from analysts at Jefferies suggested that several pharma companies could stand to benefit from long COVID cases with medicines that could help with issues such as mental health, lung scarring, kidney disease and heart failure

The BBC Panorama show featuring the ICL research will be shown this evening at 7:35pm BST.