“I was infected with coronavirus in March, six months on I’m still unwell,”

September 14, 2020

The Guardian Observer, James Tapper, 13 September 2020

Dr Charles Shepherd


Charlie Russell, 27, is one of an estimated 600,000 people with post-Covid illness, a condition that may give an insight into ME

It’s day 182 after being infected by Covid-19, and Charlie Russell is not doing the things that other 27-year-olds are doing. He’s not running 5km three times a week like he used to. He’s not going to the pub. He’s not working. And he’s not getting better.

“If I had known that I’d be this ill, I would have taken everything a lot more seriously back in March,” Russell said. “But all that we heard back then was that if you were infected and you were a young person, you’d most likely not have any symptoms at all. Or you’d be ill for a couple of weeks and that would be it.”

Instead, Russell has suffered from chest pains, excruciating migraines, severe breathlessness, dizziness and exhaustion, one of the legions of “long Covid” sufferers who have experienced long-term symptoms from the coronavirus.

Record numbers of people in their 20s are testing positive for covid-19, according to the latest figures from Public Health England, which showed 3,366 had the virus in the first week of September.

That is higher than the 3,325 cases at the end of April, although those tests were mostly conducted on people in hospitals. Although people under 40 face a much lower risk of dying from the illness, 20-somethings like Russell are catching covid-19 in far higher numbers than other age groups: 20- to 29-year-olds make up nearly 28% of all new infections.

Few will need hospital treatment, but long-Covid support groups and medical experts fear that a significant minority will end up with a severely debilitating condition that scientists do not yet understand.

Dr Charles Shepherd

“We’ve got this terrific emphasis at the moment on the idea that younger people will be OK and the main reason they shouldn’t go out is because they might infect their grannies,” said Charles Shepherd, medical adviser to the ME Association which supports people with myalgic encephalomyelitis or chronic fatigue syndrome. The association has seen substantial numbers of long-Covid patients turning to it for support.

“There is a risk that if younger people catch the disease, they may not end up in hospital but they could have an illness that leaves them exhausted with post-Covid syndrome. It’s not going to happen to the majority, but there is a real risk for a significant minority,”

Dr Charles Shepherd

About 600,000 people have some sort of post-Covid illness, according to Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London, who says that around 12% of sufferers report symptoms to the Covid Tracker app for longer than 30 days. One in 200 says the effects last for more than 90 days.

Dr Charles Shepherd.

Research has only recently begun into the long-term effects of Covid-19, but Shepherd said the working theory was that the coronavirus had disrupted people’s immune systems, causing a cytokine storm, or an overreaction of the body’s protective system, which is thought to also be a factor in ME and chronic fatigue syndrome.

“Several studies in the last two or three years show that immune system dysfunction is probably involved in ME,” he said. The immune system seems to continue to activate on a low level, trying to fight off a virus that is no longer there. That reaction may then affect the central nervous system and the hypothalamus.

If post-Covid fatigue and ME are linked, research may provide solutions to both conditions. It has been difficult to study ME since most people with the condition have lived with it for months – if a virus was involved, it has left little trace by the time researchers meet their patient.

“This is the first time you can follow people almost from day one. Researchers are building large cohorts, they have got blood samples, and they can follow patients almost from the point of infection to when they develop post-viral fatigue. We’ve never had the opportunity to do that before.”

Dr Charles Shepherd

The ME Association

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