How long does Covid last? Most Covid patients recover in 14 days, but some have symptoms longer. There is a growing effort by some to contend they have chronic Covid symptoms, sometimes referred to as “long Covid”, also known as post-Covid syndrome. Is this a real or imagined condition?
Dr. Jeremy Devine, a psychiatry resident at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario says there is no scientific basis for this condition. Yet, the National Institutes of Health last month announced a $1.15 billion initiative to research the “prolonged health consequences” of Covid-19 infection.
Dr. Devine, writing in The Wall Street Journal, says it deserves serious study. There is evidence that some elderly patients, with co-morbidities, do experience symptoms that outlast the coronavirus infection. But, as a psychiatrist, he notes that such symptoms can also be psychologically generated or caused by a physical illness unrelated to the prior infection. He says “long Covid” is largely an invention of vocal patient activist groups. Legitimizing it with generous funding risks worsening the symptoms the NIH is hoping to treat.
It seems that the concept of “long Covid” has its origin in a patient advocacy group called Body Politic. Launched in 2018, this group describes itself on its website as “a queer feminist wellness collective merging the personal and the political.” In March 2020, the group’s cofounders created the Body Politic Covid-19 Support Group. As part of their mission of “cultivating patient-led research,” the organization coordinated a series of online surveys on persistent symptoms. Based on the results of these surveys, the group produced the first report on “long Covid” in May, 2020.
Yet, many of the respondents never had Covid-19. Of those who self-identified as having persistent symptoms attributed to Covid and responded to the survey, not even a quarter had tested positive for the virus. Nearly half (47.8%) never had any testing and 27.5% tested negative for Covid-19. Body Politic published these results in a second, larger survey in December, 2020. Of 3,762 respondents, only 600 or 15.9% had actually tested positive for Covid at any time.
This shoddy research was nevertheless supported by NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins, who has repeatedly supported the Body Politic Covid-19 Support Group’s patient-led research initiatives, promoting the surveys in a series of official blog posts, according to Dr. Devine. In fact, he points out, the NIH announcement of their decision to commit $1.15 billion to long Covid research explicitly referred to the Body Politic research surveys.
Why would a scientific institution, such as NIH, support unscientific conclusions?
Dr. Devine opines that this subjugation of scientific rigor to preconceived belief reflects a common dynamic encountered in clinical practice. He says, “Patients who struggle with chronic and vague symptoms often vehemently reject a physician’s diagnosis that suggests an underlying mental health issue, in part because of the stigma around mental illness and the false belief that psychologically generated symptoms aren’t “real.”
This situation is not unique in medicine. Other medical conditions, such as chronic fatigue syndrome, have advocacy groups to support those who claim to suffer from their symptoms. Solve ME/CFS is a support group, founded for those who claim to suffer from myalgic encephalomyelitis and chronic fatigue syndrome. This group was founded in 1987 by patients who felt their chronic and numerous medical complaints – including fatigue, “brain fog,” and an inability to exert themselves physically or mentally – were being dismissed by their physicians and neglected by the medical community.
The common denominator in all these support groups is the fundamental resistance to accept the idea that their chronic symptoms are related to an underlying mental health issue despite mainstream medicine’s assertions to the contrary. They reject the notion that these patients actually suffer from anxiety or depression or both.
In an effort to strengthen their political and media support for their position, Body Politic and Solve ME/CFS have announced they are launching the Long Covid Alliance. Its mission they declare: “To transform the current understanding of Long Covid and related post-infectious illnesses” including ME/CFS.
Dr. Devine says a central feature underlying many psychosomatic-symptom disorders is a fixed belief that one is ill and unlikely to recover. By drawing attention to and legitimizing the ever-present threat of long Covid, medical authorities will lead a large group of impressionable patients to believe that their Covid-19 symptoms have not resolved and that they are helpless victims of an unrelenting sickness.
The media has perpetuated such thinking in the past. Dr. Devine reminds us this occurred in the 1940s with chronic brucellosis, in the 1980s with Epstein Barr virus, and even today with chronic Lyme’s disease. He concludes “The NIH’s decision is a victory for pseudoscience and will do more to harm than help patients.”
What do you believe? Send me your comments.