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Australia is helping to solve the mystery about Long Covid

WAToday: Long COVID baffles medical professionals, but Australia is helping solve the mystery

By Angus Dalton

I remember staring at a document at my first office job about five years ago when the letters began to skate and slide into each other. My vision and focus couldn’t latch on to one particular thing; it was like my consciousness had lost its grip. In the weeks that followed, fatigue struck and muscle tremors racked my hands, legs and face. One day, I dashed out of a uni lecture after my bicep began to quake so violently it looked like a tiny, furious demon was trying to possess my left arm. After two years of MRIs, blood tests and an appointment with a neurologist who zapped my arms and legs with electric pulses, doctors could identify only one thing out of order: antibodies for Epstein-Barr virus, the pathogen that causes glandular fever, in my blood.


After reading countless testimonies from people with long COVID, I know now that I was lucky the post-viral fatigue didn’t derail my life. Melbourne woman Alicia Newnham, who contracted long COVID last year and spoke about her experiences for our series on the illness, wasn’t so lucky.

Now researchers hope the parliamentary report into long COVID released on Monday – which found that the condition affects between 2 and 20 per cent of people infected with COVID-19 and costs the Australian economy at least $5.7 billion a year – will mark a turning point in how post-viral conditions and other chronic diseases are studied.

Why long COVID research isn’t starting from scratch

Australian National University virologist Brett Lidbury has researched myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) for more than a decade. He believes long COVID is a post-viral version of ME/CFS. “My big concern is that there was some commentary out and about that long COVID is brand new, and that we haven’t seen it before. Which is just not true,” says Lidbury.

He urged the inquiry to consider three decades of studies into ME/CFS, arguing the research provided a crucial head start for understanding long COVID, a condition that can manifest in 200 different symptoms. Lidbury is on the hunt for biomarkers that could help identify ME/CFS in a blood test – and also help diagnose long COVID.

Bringing together federal health data, hospital admissions and information from GP clinics has previously allowed researchers to identify urgent gaps in treatment for conditions ranging from cancer to cardiovascular disease. For long COVID, a national database could generate evidence for effective methods of treating and managing the disease and eventually inform clinical decisions.

An Australian long COVID treatment trial

Dr Craig Anderson, director of Brain Health at The George Institute for Global Health, is running a randomised control trial to scrutinise the potential of atorvastatin – a medicine usually prescribed to lower cholesterol – to treat long COVID. Anderson, who expects results in 2025, is testing patients on measures including quality of life, mood and physical functions alongside blood tests and brain scans. “There’s not too many clinical trials going on in long COVID, but hopefully, it will shed some light on the condition and potentially a treatment strategy.”

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