Blood test may help identify patients at risk for long COVID: study

What about long COVID? That might become the question as hospitalizations and deaths caused by COVID-19 have plummeted since the introduction of vaccines and new therapies, as noted in data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There’s still concern about a fall surge fueled by new subvariants and sub-subvariants of omicron, but, for the most part, Americans have returned to their pre-pandemic activities. As a recent Axios-Ipsos poll says, in the minds of most people: It’s over.

Except for people who have contracted long COVID.

Richard Stefanacci, chief medical officer at the Jefferson College of Population Health at Thomas Jefferson University, recently told Fierce Healthcare that health plans and employers haven’t really put long COVID on their radar because it’s not clear yet what it will cost to treat.

“I’d expect very shortly, two important facts getting defined—the cost of long COVID and the diagnostic criteria," he said. "Without these two elements, payers and employers can’t plan and manage appropriately."

Into the waters of defining diagnostic criteria jumps a small study conducted by researchers at University College London that shows that a blood test can be a predictor of who might be more susceptible to getting long COVID. Researchers analyzed proteins in the blood of 54 healthcare workers who’d been infected by COVID-19 during the first wave in March 2020 and compared results to blood samples of 102 healthcare workers who hadn’t been infected.

The study tracked 91 proteins and found that abnormal levels of 20 such proteins predicted who would have persistent COVID-19 symptoms after a year, according to the study published in Lancet eBioMedicine. The proteins were linked to anti-coagulant (anti-clotting) and anti-inflammatory processes.

In addition, the study shows that long COVID can occur in individuals with mild symptoms or who are asymptomatic, according to lead author Gaby Captur, M.D., Ph.D. The disruption of proteins in blood plasma “means that even mild Covid-19 affects normal biological processes in a dramatic way, up to at least six weeks after infection,” Captur said in a press release.

An artificial intelligence algorithm—targeted mass spectrometry—identified the protein signatures that predicted whether a person would report COVID-19 symptoms a year after infection. The blood test can be conducted in a timely manner, said Captur.

“The method of analysis we used is readily available in hospitals and is high-throughput, meaning it can analyze thousands of samples in an afternoon,” she said in a press release.

The study states that “more than 30% of individuals have persistent symptoms following acute SARS-CoV-2 infection. A clear cause has not yet been found but current theories revolve around immune dysregulation, clotting dysfunction or virus persistence. We show that signature biomarkers at the time of seroconversion for SARS-CoV-2 associates with the persistence of symptoms at 12 months.”

Senior author Wendy Heywood, Ph.D., said in the press release that “if we can identify people who are likely to develop long COVID, this opens the door to trialling treatments such as antivirals at this earlier, initial infection stage, to see if it can reduce the risk of later long COVID.”